Eric Garner, a New York man whose only suspected crime was selling loose cigarettes at the time of his confrontation with law enforcement, was choked to death in the street by an officer of the New York Police Department (NYPD) this past July. I do not care to re-name the officer being held responsible, because I believe that the individual who physically perpetrated this heinous act was an embodiment of the culture in law enforcement these days.
Going after the officer personally does two things wrong. It misdirects anger at an individual and takes it away from the institution, while also allowing the institution an easy out. All NYPD would need to do to sate the majority of the public is likely discipline the one officer for getting caught doing it. What people should want the NYPD to do is to admit fault, and to address problematic elements of their culture. And also, to revise not just their stated procedures, but their justification for use of force.
Eric Garner simply did not require such a degree of violence to talk to. Considering that jails and prisons are over-crowded in the United States, as the country enjoys a rate of incarceration five times higher than that of the average for similarly-developed states, I think it is safe, probably… o.k maybe to assume that officers were not interested in actually incarcerating Eric Garner for such a non-offense.
What is far more likely is that the police interaction with Eric Garner was rooted in a pseudo-masculine display of dominance, or a paranoid idea that allowing him the dignity of remaining standing without an arm around his neck would allow him the psychological freedom to feel that he was entitled to question officers. But we should feel entitled to question officers. That is why they are supposed to need to show warrants to search you or your property.
All anyone needs to know about the “culture” that I blamed above, is that the Grand Jury declined to issue an indictment, thereby reinforcing the public suspicion that much of the criminal justice system views itself as above the law. Not only was Eric Garner choked to death, the coroner report listed compression to his body and neck as the primary cause of death, with obesity and asthma as contributing factors, but the medical examiner’s spokesperson, Julie Bolcer, announced on August 1, that it was ruled a homicide.
In my opinion, Eric Garner was murdered, and by not issuing and indictment, they are saying that his murder was justified. They are saying that he either presented a threat so great that lethal force was required to stop it, or that his crime of being suspected of selling loose cigarettes was so heinous as to deserve summary execution sans habeus corpus. Anything else is an excuse to allow people to sleep better in denial of how wrong this was, or a shoddy defense of living in a society where people can be murdered by a person with a badge over nothing, and there will be no consequence. Law enforcement departments and the states and cities they serve are all part of the same culture that works overtime to justify this disrespect of life.
I do not agree with many who want to make it about a familiar nemesis. The NYPD does not represent a patriarchy, and although this case certainly seems to indicate that black lives are less valued, I do not either think that racism is sufficient to describe it. Racism is more like the cover-up that puts people in trenches on opposite sides of a line, so that they will not come out of their holes to help the people who clickbait, ratings-driven media has skillfully manipulated them into seeing as enemies to get more traffic. We are being divided, and conquered, along every conceivable metric that could be used to come between people. Eric Garner was a father to six kids, trying to make it in a city with an astronomical cost of living.
Sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and political beliefs do not exempt anyone from John Locke’s conception of natural rights, which was enshrined in the constitution of the United States of America, which was also written for Eric Garner. And while we are put on a treadmill to chase the ever-shifting goalposts of equality by media and political definition, all the while learning better to blame and hate than to forgive, support, and progress, we are not seeing the clouds gathering. Our right to exist without being murdered for menial, pathetic grasps at questioning authority is slipping away, and most of us would rather blame an effigy of a demographic that we have learned to accept as our enemy trough myriad mechanisms.
Eric Garner deserves better. He deserves to be mourned and seen as a martyr by people of all colors. We should not accept a scapegoat, or a false hero. Only a department-wide reckoning and its accompanying crushing of many political aspirations should be accepted as a sign of contrition. Rioting and violence should be avoided, as they are used in messaging to discredit the outraged, and too often all that comes is more innocent people being hurt. Use your votes, use your words, and deny them your consent.
Blog by Brian Whittemore
Photo by The All-Nite Images – flickr License