Thursday, December 4, 2014

Killing Eric Garner


"I can't breathe" -- Eric Garner
. . . our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law. . . . But . . . there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion. I don’t think that’s the norm. I don’t think that’s true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials.
President Barack Obama, Nov. 24, 2014

Read that again: the "vast majority of law enforcement officials" do their job in an even-handed way. But law enforcement is like any profession. Talk to any conscientious chief of police or director of public safety in any town in America and, if they are candid, they will tell you there's always one or two on the force they'd like to get rid of -- who overstep their authority, who have an attitude that doesn't comport with being a public servant.

The death of Eric Garner was inexcusable. For those who insist that he got what was coming to him because he was resisting arrest for an alleged minor crime, I can only say you are grotesquely unschooled in basic notions of justice -- things like "due process" and the idea that the punishment must fit the crime. As the New York Time said: "The imbalance between Mr. Garner’s fate, on a Staten Island sidewalk in July, and his supposed infraction, selling loose cigarettes, is grotesque and outrageous."

Was Eric Garner's death racially motivated? We've come a long way in terms of race, but we still have a ways to go. The greatest victims of injustice in the criminal justice system now and for as long as this country has existed are black men. Race was an animating factor in the two most prominent injustices this blog has dealt with, the Brian Banks case and the Hofstra false rape case. We need to be candid that a lot of people have a fear of black males and are quick to assume they are guilty and that they "got what they deserved" when they are killed for resisting arrest. The fact that so many African American males are stranded in a cistern of poverty and crime only affirms those feelings, and innocent black males are often negatively stereotyped by the general public and by police because of the actions of other black males, and that's not fair. Even Jesse Jackson once said: "There is nothing more painful to me ... than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

With that said, I am sorry that this incident comes so quickly on the heels of the Michael Brown incident. Here's the reality: people who don't view every police encounter with a black male through the prism of race weren't sure about the Brown case, and the riot that ensued made middle America even less sympathetic, to the point of affirming their darkest feelings about race.

But the Eric Garner case seems different. This one was blatant. Maybe it's because we have incontrovertible evidence of what happened and we know that the police officer used force that isn't allowed by the police department. A man who didn't seem like much of a threat was killed by agents of the City of New York, and somebody needs to answer for that.

I only wish the grievance industry would learn to pick its spots. Not every bad outcome merits a protest, much less burning down a town; not every ambiguous grand jury decision warrants taking a strong stance. Sometimes it's entirely proper to say, "I really don't know what happened." If they did that where it's appropriate, the grievance-mongers would have a lot more credibility with middle America (and they wouldn't deserve to be called "grievance mongers").

Sadly, a lot of people who pay little attention to the news will assume that the outrage over Eric Garner is just more of the same from the usual suspects. I don't think it is.