What happened to our anger over police violence?

Five years after Eric Garner's death, the issue that once dominated news has largely faded from view

An Eric Garner memorial.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Jessicahyde/iStock, AP Photo/John Minchillo)

"Justice delayed is justice denied," the legal maxim holds, but what about justice dragged out and administered piecemeal, bureaucratized and monetized and extended well past the public's capacity to maintain its righteous anger? What about justice delayed so long that it is no longer demanded?

This summer will mark five years since Eric Garner died after a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The strangling move was prohibited under NYPD rules. Garner was unarmed and begging for his life with a plea — "I can't breathe!" — that would become a rallying cry for the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. The struggle that led to his death was caught on camera. The medical examiner's office ruled it a homicide and specifically cited Pantaleo's neck-compressing restraint as the cause of death.

And yet a grand jury declined to indict. Pantaleo faced no criminal charges. He was not fired, merely moved to desk duty, pulling a six-figure salary. The City of New York settled a civil suit with the Garner family, and taxpayers funded a $5.9 million payout. The Department of Justice launched an independent probe in December of 2014, but any conclusions it has reached have not been made public. Garner's daughter, Erica, died awaiting federal civil rights charges that have yet to materialize.

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That just leaves the NYPD's departmental trial of Pantaleo, which began this week. About halfway through as of this writing, the hearings have included some damning moments. There was the medical examiner's testimony that Pantaleo's illicit chokehold "set into motion a lethal sequence," and the revelation that another NYPD officer declared, via text message, that Garner being "most likely DOA" was "not a big deal."

But despite these details — and despite the video, and the homicide ruling, and the departmental policy against chokeholds, and Garner's nonviolent offense, and his desperate appeals for mercy — despite all that, this trial is unlikely to end in anything like justice. It may well end with no discipline for Pantaleo at all.

"Eric is crying from heaven, because he sees his mother and his family out here still trying to fight for justice for him," said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, as the hearings began. "It's been five years — five years we've been on the front lines trying to get justice, and they're still trying to sweep it under the rug."

She's right about the delay, but it's also true that five years after Garner's death, the "we" who have "been on the front lines trying to get justice" is not what it once was. The national uproar over police brutality that grew around Garner — and continued through the deaths of Ferguson's Michael Brown, Cleveland's Tamir Rice, Charleston's Walter Scott, Baltimore's Freddie Gray, Texas' Sandra Bland, and too many more — has largely quieted.

What was the last death to attract such broad attention? Was it the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile? My perception may be colored by living less than five miles from the spot where Castile died, but I can't think of a more recent addition to the grim pantheon of killings that inflamed and shaped the national conversation about policing in America. (The 2018 shooting of Dallas' Botham Jean was widely noted, but it did not spark the same interest in criminal justice reform because the officer who killed him was off-duty at the time.)

Castile was shot in July, almost two years to the day after Garner died — and almost four months to the day before the 2016 election. Less than two weeks after Castile's death, President Trump officially won his party's nomination. The country's attention shifted to debates and tweets, polls and emails. Our talk about law enforcement ceased to concern the local officers whose conduct might actually affect us and our neighbors and focused instead on the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and whether Trump or Hillary Clinton or any number of their associates ought to be locked up.

This is not because police violence has stopped happening. The Washington Post continues to dutifully tally the number of people American police fatally shoot each year, and yeah, the count so far stands at 342, probably enough to reach, by year's end, the last half-decade's annual average of about 1,000. I follow and write about police brutality and criminal justice reform topics more broadly with some regularity, but scrolling through the Post's list, I don't recognize a single recent name. The news stories cited for each entry are overwhelmingly from local sources; even deaths with inflammatory details like Garner's and Castile's no longer seem to gain much national traction.

Perhaps the media is due some blame, but I suspect the attention deficit here has more to do with demand than supply. Indignation about police misconduct and calls for reform were fading among the white majority by early 2016, as I wrote here at The Week at the time. Polling in late 2015 showed white Americans found police more trustworthy after 18 months of notorious police custody deaths and resultant protests. Already it was becoming evident that cases which once would (and should) have provoked national controversy were increasingly met with desensitization and indifference outside of local protests.

That's even more true three years later. Cases like Garner's are dismissed or, almost worse, investigated into a slow and silent oblivion. Settlements are paid, but little changes at the structural level. It's true that good and difficult work for local reform continues in many communities, but the larger momentum feels all but gone.

If Eric Garner were killed today, would many people outside his local community care? Would his story dominate headlines for more than a couple days? Would it be parsed more closely than the president's latest tweeted inanity?

And if it wouldn't, what does that say about us?

Did we only make time to object to police brutality when it was convenient? Was addressing systemic state violence that disproportionately affects minorities something we only bothered with when everything else seemed pretty copacetic? Was it always the political equivalent of a luxury good to be cut from our outrage budget as soon as times got tough?

If this departmental Garner trial comes to nought, will anybody march?

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