Another unarmed African American is dead by police hands. Yet again, the individual responsible will not face judgment. Unlike the Michael Brown situation in Ferguson, because it was caught on tape, there is no ambiguity about the events that ended Garner’s life. Police stopped Garner because they suspected him of selling untaxed loose cigarettes. After a conversation, multiple NYPD officers pulled Garner to the ground. One officer — Daniel Pantaleo — put Garner in a chokehold (a tactic banned by the NYPD). While on the ground, Garner, who was asthmatic, repeatedly complained that he could not breathe. He died at the scene. Neither police nor emergency medical respondents provided medical assistance to Garner as he lay unconscious on a sidewalk for more than six minutes. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Despite all this being captured on video, despite the ME’s opinion, and despite the fact that two separate civil suits for police misconduct were previously filed against Pantaleo, a grand jury determined Wednesday that the officer will not face charges related to the incident.
I lack the talent and intellectual depth necessary to properly articulate my frustrations. Limp pleas for calm and understanding don’t resonate much anymore. Telling citizens how they should react to outcomes they feel obliterate the civil rights legislation their parents and grandparents bled to make law is an act of unfathomable arrogance. Nor can I stomach any more insincere attempts at contrition by the perpetrators, their words filtered through a dozen lawyers to ensure the press release contains just the right amount of contrition.
Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, now forced to raise six children alone, is similarly incensed. Here’s her response to Pantaleo’s statement:
“The time for remorse would have been when my husband was yelling to breathe. That would have been the time for him to show some type of remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life—when he was screaming 11 times that he can’t breathe. There’s nothing that him or his prayers or anything else will make me feel any different. No, I don’t accept his apology. No, I can care less about his condolences. He’s still working, still getting a paycheck, still feeding is kids when my husband is six feet under and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now.”
Tragic as the events are that led to Esaw Garner’s powerful rebuttal, it’s refreshing to hear an honest, emotional reaction slice through the sea of platitudes and paint-by-numbers statements. I certainly understand why we cling to familiar bromides in the aftermath of perceived judicial miscarriages. Absent justice, we’ve become EVE from Wall-E, scouring a desolate wasteland for any evidence of progress. Just point to something, anything, we can cling to convince ourselves not all is lost. So we rationalize. We tell ourselves that this latest atrocity at least opens the door for national conversation about the relationship between race and authority and blah blah blah. These are merely the embers of a dying fire floating harmlessly through the night sky. Sure, a there’s a chance one might settle in the right spot and trigger a landscape-altering blaze. But most will drift quietly into the air, sparks extinguished long before they can cause any real transformation.
I try to abide by a simple rule when writing a think piece: if you’re going to outline a problem, you better include a solution. Here, though, I’m in danger of violating my edict. Perhaps that’s appropriate given the subject. Brokering peace between police and minorities is akin to carrying a giant greased beach ball filled with knives up a spiral staircase, blindfolded, with rollerblades strapped to your feet. The problem seems too slippery, too massive, too intricate, too leaden with deeply ingrained multi-generational strife to untangle and rebuild. This is America’s Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and like that all-consuming quagmire, it threatens to overwhelm society’s very foundations if left unresolved.
Many claim our justice system is irrevocably broken. Labeling something broken implies that it once functioned properly. From Serial to Ferguson to Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, recent events have made it abundantly clear that the issues with America’s law enforcement apparatus and justice system are well beyond repair. The entire machine is objectively dysfunctional, obscenely biased, and hopelessly stacked against the very individuals it’s designed to serve. Check out Matt Taibbi’s outstanding book The Divide for look inside how both law enforcement and the courts treat minorities unlucky enough run afoul of either institution.
Even law enforcement reforms won’t prevent police from abusing power or ensure that officers answer for their actions. Pantaleo didn’t escape prosecution by hiding behind the blue shield. The grand jury wasn’t stocked with law enforcement officials. The prosecutor wasn’t a beat cop. Ordinary citizens no different than you or I watched that tape, examined the evidence, and determined that Pantaleo’s actions should be charged. That’s not police corruption. It’s societal failure. It’s our fault.
Just as feminism cannot reach its ultimate goals without men preaching and helping to implement its ideals, societal reformation of institutionalized, structural racism can only happen if white people are part of the solution. Protests raise awareness. Awareness breeds calls for action. If those calls for action fall on deaf ears — if people from every ethnicity and income level refuse to honestly examine how their prejudices and biases contribute to police officers killing unarmed minorities without consequence — nothing changes. We’re the problem. But we — cops, janitors, bakers, delivery men, soldiers, secretaries, pilots, plumbers, librarians, athletes, lawyers, doctors — are also the only solution.
As a parent, I want to teach my child — as I was taught — that the police are helpers, that they should be called when there is danger and sought out for assistance. What I have come to understand is that parents of children of color know they have to impart a different message: that the police are to be obeyed immediately and blindly — or else — that the police are themselves a potential danger, a threat.
Take, for instance, this account of a conversation that Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch had to have with her black, 17-year old grandson (via UExpress)
Son, if the police stop you, I need for you to be humble. But I need more than that. I need for you to be prepared to be humiliated.
If they tell you take your hands out of your pockets, take your hands out. Be ready to turn your pockets out. If they tell you to sit down, be prepared to lie down.
You only walk in the street with one boy at a time, she told him.
“What?” her grandson said. In his 17-year-old mind, he hadn’t done anything wrong and nothing was going to happen to him.
“If it’s three or more, you’re a mob,” she said. “That’s how they will see you.”
She started to cry.
“Listen to me,” she begged. “Hear me.”
Finally, she felt him feel her fear.
If they ask you who you are, name your family.
Yes, sir and no, sir. If they are in your face, even if they are wrong, humble yourself and submit yourself to the moment.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Because I love you.”
She told him she would rather pick him up from the police station than identify his body at a morgue.
This heartbreaking disparity has become an open secret — we all know about the routine stops for “driving while black” the fact that black customers are followed disproportionately while shopping. In fact there are those who still defend “profiling” as appropriate responses to high levels of crime in the black community. The time has come for white people to understand that these problems are our problems. This travesty of justice — this injustice — belongs to us. It is well past time that we take on the responsibility of change. This can no longer be what it means to raise a child in America.