Why the NYPD’s funeral protests are no better than the Westboro Baptist Church

This Sunday, NYPD officers as well as those from visiting agencies turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral of Wenjian Liu, one of two officers killed in an ambush in December. Echoing their actions at the funeral of Liu’s partner Rafael Ramos, they chose to engage in an act of protest at the event rather than respecting the families of the dead—and an expressed directive from the city’s police commissioner.

It would appear that the NYPD has joined the Westboro Baptist Church in thinking that funerals are an appropriate venue for political statements. The same appears to be true for those who allegedly threatened the Alcorn family after the death of their daughter, Leelah—who took her own life in late December, citing her family’s transphobic treatment as a significant contributor to her isolation and depression—forcing them to hold their ceremony privately. These high-profile cases of protests and threats at funerals are reminders of the fact that many people think they’re a good venue for political statements, instead of an opportunity to honor the dead. There are in fact plenty of locales to air grievances and political commentary, but this is not one of them.

Memorials surrounding controversial deaths that have become highly publicized can be a tightrope act. While they are ostensibly held for family and close friends mourning the dead, they can turn into political and cultural symbols. Free speech may protect the right to protest, but that doesn’t make it tactful or appropriate, and the bizarre insistence on funeral protests is a telling testimony to our disrespect.

The Westboro Baptist Church, of course, is notorious for protesting funerals, including those of U.S. Marines, children killed in mass shootings, Boston Marathon bombing victims, and that of Robin Williams. Known for waving “God hates fags” signs and haranguing both families and attendees, the church is often met by counterprotesters like bikers and union members who attempt to create a buffer zone between the mourners and the protesters. The NYPD couldn’t have found a better playbook when it comes to selecting funerals as a protest medium to elicit maximum attention, controversy, and public outrage, but oddly, the agency doesn’t see to realize that the Westboro Baptist Church is widely loathed in no small part specifically because of its preferred protest venue. Their strategy, like the NYPD’s, is doomed to backfire from the start.

At both Ramos’ and Liu’s funerals, row upon row of police officers turned their backs when the mayor passed by or started speaking, despite the fact that he had been welcomed at the funerals by the families of the slain officers. The move was intended to protest what they perceive as unfair policies on the mayor’s part, though those policies were exactly what civilians asked him to implement—he was elected by a 73 percent vote on a platform where police reform figured prominently. In the time since he’s taken office, de Blasio has been an outspoken proponent of changes in New York’s policing, and police officers aren’t happy. They’re accusing him of being responsible for the men’s deaths thanks to those very reforms.

The mayor has already announced a planned shift to de-escalation tactics in policing, a focus on “broken windows” policing to address minor crimes before they turn into bigger ones, and an end to stop and frisk. He also enraged police in December with his frank remarks that he taught his biracial son to be careful around police officers. He wants policing in New York to be smart and targeted, which is a radical departure from historic practices. To say that de Blasio is unpopular with the NYPD may be a bit of an understatement.

Yet, protesting at a funeral is an extreme choice, as is the partial work shutdown the department is choosing to engage in to pressure the mayor into ceding to its demands. The mayor has repeatedly met with union representatives and police officials to discuss common ground and effective reform, indicating a willingness to work with the NYPD, and Commissioner Bratton specifically requested that officers respect the solemnity of Liu’s funeral and face forward during the proceedings. Yet, he was one among only a handful of law enforcement officers who choose not to turn his back amongst the rustle of blue as the mayor walked by.

Officers may be unhappy with de Blasio’s reforms, but they have opportunities to file union grievances and to advocate directly on their own behalf, should they feel so inclined. Anyone can make an appointment with the mayor’s office. Instead of making a striking statement, the police came off badly at Det. Ramos’ funeral, and they looked even worse at Det. Liu’s. New York’s sentiment against the NYPD is increasing in response to their poorly timed protests and their work stoppage, and the nation doesn’t view the agency any more favorably. The NY Daily News has demanded an apology from Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, for failing to condemn officers engaged in the protests and for refusing to address the work slowdown. Likewise, the conservative New York Post has spoken out about the department’s behavior.

At both events, protesting the mayor’s presence drew attention away from the subject of the memorial and the purpose of the gathering. As family members and associates prepared for the proceedings, they were faced with what must have felt like a slap in the face from police officers more interested in making a point than treating a fallen colleague with honor. The mayor was angered by the disrespect, as was the police commissioner.

“What was the need, in the middle of that ceremony, to engage in a political action?” Bratton said of the decision to wilfully ignore his request to the department. “I don’t get it and I’m very disappointed—very disappointed in those who did not respond to my request.”

The alleged threats surrounding Alcorn’s funeral are yet another reminder of America’s disrespect for funerals. While the teen’s parents have chosen to continue misgendering her in the media and intend to bury her under a headstone with her birth name, protesting her memorial smacks of extreme disrespect to the teen and to her family, who deserve the right to hold a funeral in peace. Grief and loss are complicated emotions, and it’s important to have an opportunity for private mourning and a chance to say farewell to the dead.

Forcing a family to hold a secret funeral is hardly a brave political act. If anything, it’s a distressingly cowardly one, coming from people who perhaps cannot find more appropriate opportunities to advocate for trans youth. There are much better choices available, including some that might bring some measure of justice for Leelah. Noted activist Dan Savage has called for prosecution or other penalties for her parents, for example, arguing that her treatment may amount to child abuse. Notably, the state of California actually bans “conversion therapy” like that she endured, and her death could be a galvanizing rallying point for similar bans in other states. Rather than organizing around her funeral, protesters could seek opportunities to reach out and support trans teens, to build the better world that Alcorn asked people to create.

All deaths are tragedies, and all deaths are surrounded with their own emotional complexities. These deaths, however, have become imbued with meanings beyond the control of their families, and they’ve been hijacked by the political interests of those who wish to use them to make points. Police officers who turned their backs at the funerals of their fallen comrades, highly conservative Christians showing up at the funerals of strangers to picket, and angry people contacting the Alcorn family about their lack of support for their daughter have more in common than they may realize. They might be uncomfortable about these parallels if they paused to think about them.

A funeral is never an appropriate venue for politics. It’s the day when people set aside their differences to focus on mourning or choose to stay home if they can’t suppress their political urges. As Alcorn’s family shifts her funeral to avoid unwanted public attention and the NYPD digs in its heels in its battle with the mayor, we’re reminded of some basic etiquette that might as well have been dealt out by Miss Manners herself, the ultimate authority on all matters of behavior, public and private.

Were a reader to write in with “When is it appropriate to protest at a funeral?” Miss Manners would no doubt reply with “Never.”

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.). 

Photo via diana_robinson/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.