What the right gets wrong about Eric Garner's death

Some conservatives would like to pretend this isn't about race

The death of Eric Garner, and the decision by a grand jury not to indict the police officer who killed him, spawned bipartisan outrage, presenting a striking contrast to the party-line response that followed the non-indictment in the death of another unarmed black man, Michael Brown.

Unlike Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, there was no shred of ambiguity in the Garner case, which played out in the New York City borough of Staten Island. Video shows the officer placing Garner in an illegal choke hold, Garner gasping, "I can't breathe," and Garner collapsing. A coroner ruled the case a homicide. Garner's only (alleged) crime: selling loose cigarettes on the street.

The immediate response on both the right and the left was one of disbelief and condemnation. Yet there was, and remains, a notable partisan split in parsing the Garner case. Though libertarians and conservatives are willing to acknowledge that his death was indeed a tragedy, many are unwilling to concede he died because of the color of his skin.

This is no small omission. Denying the racial implications of the Garner case absolves the need to address — or even recognize — the systemic victimization of black and brown people at the hands of the police in America. It is an exercise in magical thinking that fails to explain why, after adjusting for their share of the general population, blacks are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by the police.

So how did the right frame Garner's death?

New York Rep. Peter King claimed that police acted properly, and that Garner died only because he was "so obese." Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) argued that taxes and politicians killed Garner, because they had "driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive."

"I do blame the politicians," Paul said Wednesday evening on MSNBC. "We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws."

Others on the right echoed Paul's race-blind interpretation: Big government killed Eric Garner. Some went so far as to say that the case underscored the liberal folly of entrusting government with ensuring public wellbeing.

There is truth to the argument that a pervasive police mentality of unchecked aggression played a role in Garner's death. But that doesn't tell the whole story, which is that the subjects of excessive force are disproportionately non-white.

White police officers killed on average 96 black people every year between 2006 and 2012, according to a USA Today analysis. And though blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 32 percent of all felons killed by police in "justifiable homicides" in 2012, according to FBI data.

New York City adheres to this same pattern. White police officers are disproportionately likely to fire upon suspects, and blacks are disproportionately likely to be in the crosshairs, according to the city's own data. In 2011, 85 percent of the people shot at by police were black or Hispanic, even though those demographics account for roughly half the city's overall population.

An illuminating parallel to understanding the right's strange response to Garner's case is that of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who staged an armed standoff with the feds over grazing fees. Conservatives embraced Bundy's crusade and exalted his threats of violent insurrection — at least until footage emerged of his racist ramblings. But that degree of hero worship has been non-existent in the right's response to Garner, who, like Bundy, was targeted by law enforcement for alllegedly circumventing ostensibly oppressive taxation. As Peter Beinart put in The Atlantic, "Had Eric Garner been a rural white man with a cowboy hat killed by federal agents, instead of a large black man choked to death by the NYPD, his face would be on a Ted Cruz for President poster by now."

There is an appalling, centuries-old tradition of whites ascribing superhuman powers to blacks. That trope was on full display in the testimony of officer Darren Wilson, who claimed self-defense in killing Michael Brown because his victim looked like a "demon" who was "bulking up" to run through a volley of gunfire. It was also on full display in the video of four police officers subduing Garner, one of whom felt the only way to handle an unarmed black man was to choke the life out of him. And it was on full display again in another video of cops and EMTs letting Garner lie prone on the sidewalk for minutes before carelessly dumping his body on a stretcher, like a slab of meat, as one of them quipped about his girth.

It is through this lens that the police response to Garner must be viewed. The conservative insistence otherwise is woefully, ignorantly incomplete.


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