Eric Garner's Grim Warning To Us All: Being Black Is Hazardous to Your Health

This is the chokehold seen round the world.
Publish date:
December 3, 2014
racism, police brutality, Eric Garner

Welp, it’s official. Black life is cheap -- as cheap as a loose cigarette.

A grand jury in Staten Island, New York, Wednesday cleared a white police officer who was videotaped on July 17 putting an unarmed, asthmatic father of six in a chokehold.

Repeatedly screaming he couldn’t breathe, Eric Garner, 43, lay motionless on the ground, dying later at the hospital.

The attorney for Officer Daniel Pantaleo cited resistance and poor health as the reason Garner died, which sounds about right, because being black in America is certainly hazardous to one’s health right about now.

Especially if you’re a black man interfacing with police or white males like Trayvon Martin-killer George Zimmerman, who simply thought he was.

The grand jury’s decision to overlook videotaped evidence showing Pantaleo using a takedown method banned by New York’s police department as well as making no effort to help Garner stings in light of the decision to clear former Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson, of course, is the infamous cop cleared last week by a grand jury of killing Michael Brown, 18, in bizarre secret proceedings that violated the spirit of the American courts’ promise of transparency.

In Garner’s case, according to the Associated Press, he was stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, though police union officials insist Pantaleo used an approved move that only backfired because Garner wouldn’t cooperate.

Now, Garner sits among a tragic pantheon of dead black males befallen at the hands of white police in suspicious circumstances that won’t be scrutinized in the open air of a trial, which, to be honest could have still cleared the officer, as it could have in Wilson’s case.

Let’s also remember 12-year-old Cleveland boy Tamir Rice, shot down Nov. 22 when police mistook an air-soft gun for a real one, being juxtaposed on social media against images of a white man waving a real gun and negotiated with by cautious San Francisco police. Or recall Brandon McKean, stopped by an officer in Pontiac, Michigan, recently, on the grounds he was walking with his hands in his pockets.

Reminiscent of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch’s spiteful, whiny, criticism of social media and the journalistic profession, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said McKean had an agenda in posting the video, which he claims doesn’t fully show the officer explaining the importance of following up on 911 calls.

I should say he had an agenda — to stay alive.

Let’s be clear that policing is a noble profession practiced by men and women who regularly put their physical and mental lives on the line to keep us safe. Any criticism that calls for reforms and retraining (like those embraced by N.Y. Police Chief William Bratton) should be welcomed as we press toward a more perfect union, which is still a possibility.

But on this, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, America seems to have regressed. Not because cops are necessarily being the given the benefit of the doubt, but because the system we’re supposed to trust just cannot be trusted.

In Garner’s case, grand jury proceedings took place in a borough home to many police and firefighters, which could arguably skew perceptions. The Ferguson Decision highlights the contempt people in authority have for the African-American community at large. It was as if McCullouch decided he would rewrite the 1960s, using the power of narrative to hijack a true telling of what happened on Aug. 9. He gave Americans permission to do the same.

The fact that basic evidence that suffices in most every grand jury proceeding cannot squeeze though trial court doors when police are involved with black men is troubling — and wrong.

The point of the Civil Rights Act was to make a giant leap toward fully enfranchising African-Americans, women and others who had been discriminated against based on national origin. One success is women, especially white women, who have faired well in gaining workplace access. As evidenced by reporting that my graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School unearthed last summer, systems are in place now to right wrongs such as employment discrimination and human trafficking.

Randall Kennedy, a prolific author and Harvard University law professor wrote in Harper’s magazine recently that the law was wildly successful in equalizing access to public accommodations. But now that we — meaning me and other African-Americans — can occupy any public space, what will keep us from being shot and choked once we get there?