Opinion

Why Eric Garner's death should disturb everyone

It could happen to you

On Wednesday, a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold. To most observers, it was a baffling decision; video footage seemed to definitively show an act of injustice. At the very least, this was manslaughter — and the police who did this deserve to be held responsible.

If you haven't read Harry Siegel's piece on Eric Garner's death, or viewed the videos he posted, you should. Like Siegel, I was struck by the cavalier attitude — the spirit of downright insouciance — displayed by the police officers as a man lay dying. On two different occasions now, when I have watched the video of an asthmatic man being placed in a chokehold, and then hearing him say, "I can't breathe," I have found myself viscerally writhing.

Conversely, these officers seemed utterly at ease. It's understandable why I — a man with a keyboard — might not be inured to such suffering. The question is, why are they?

My hope is that no matter what happens in this case (and make no mistake, someone should go to jail), Garner's death might finally start to change things.

It's hard not to put this within the context of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, even though these cases are very different. The obvious difference, of course, is that we have video of Garner's killing. This is not to suggest that video would have shown Officer Wilson to have been as culpable; some might draw that conclusion, but that would be facile.

Some say the grand jury's decision to end the criminal case means that the idea of police body cams isn't the answer. To be sure, nothing is, in and of itself, the answer. But the fact that this was caught on tape has already had the impact of uniting whites and blacks, Republicans and Democrats, on this issue. It seems people are universally condemning this act and this decision. And that's not nothing.

There may be a temptation to play up the racial aspect to this case, and that would certainly be easy to do. First, it may be a technical requirement if the Department of Justice is to step in. Moreover, coming on the heels of Ferguson, given our history, and with a video showing only white police officers surrounding an unarmed black man, suggesting race had something to do with this would not be an absurd conclusion.

But I suspect it wouldn't be the right approach. First, of course, there is really no direct evidence (as far as I know) to buttress this. Second, it would probably just push pundits and politicians into their respective corners. And lastly, while I have no doubt African-Americans are abused by police far more often, whites should not kid themselves and think that this would never happen to their sons. It very well could. If your white son mouths off to a police officer, could he not end up like Garner?

There will surely be other lenses as well. Even if whites don't defend the cops (as, absent a video, they might have reflexively done), you will probably see more and more conservatives try to redefine this narrative, making it about taxation, or the fact that there are too many laws on the books (Garner was allegedly illegally selling loose cigarettes). These, of course, are secondary issues, at most. Additionally, don't be surprised to if negative information about Garner begins to trickle out. Maybe he wasn't a boy scout. Should that matter?

Like the civil right movement, we should all be onboard with this cause. Our goal should be justice for Eric Garner, and reform for a broken system meant to protect and serve, not strangle and murder.

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