On Eric Garner, Michael Brown, And Having Empathy For Black Experiences
“I can’t breathe.” This is what black American and father of six, Eric Garner, can audibly be heard said on video after he’s wrestled to the ground in a chokehold by multiple police officers. After resisting arrest vocally in July of 2014, Garner had his hands up when taken down, and face to the pavement as he died. He never acted violently, and his only alleged crime was selling cigarettes tax-free.
Though the death was ruled a homicide by medical examiners, on December 3, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the main officer in question, Daniel Pantaleo. There was one participant that was indicted, however: the man that took the video, for possessing an illegal firearm. The video provided crucial evidence that, despite its clarity, was not convincing enough to sway the jury. Perhaps little could have.
Less than an hour after news broke on the offending officer’s lack of indictment, “I can’t breathe” is what marchers outside the New York Public Library chanted in unison, drawing library users from their laptops to whisper by the windows.
The parallels with the Michael Brown case, which spurred 2014’s Black Lives Matter movement, are clear though not wholly equivalent. Conflicting evidence on the particulars of the incident in Ferguson has been used by many as a wall to deny that problems regarding race and minority treatment exist at a larger scale. Today, many New Yorkers stand as strong as ever on the side of empathy and accountability, and by doing so argue that there is no excuse to stand anywhere else, regardless of politics.
The basics are simpler than they might seem. Humans are imperfect, after all, and police officers, as a subset of humans, commit crimes too. Law enforcement is an extremely difficult and often dangerous job, requiring split second decisions and lives on the line. Not everyone can or should do it. But without adequate accountability, the actions of officers at fault are protected, reinforced, and very rarely punished.
Deadly force, most would agree, should be avoided whenever possible. And yet, the rate of officers charged with either murder or manslaughter (only 41 in 7 years) implies otherwise, as do mishandled investigations of such incidents. The FBI reported 461 deaths ruled justifiable homicides last year, which is almost certainly an undercount considering police homicide reports to the FBI are voluntary.
Many have and will continue to argue that high-crime neighborhoods are what lead to aggressive policing, or criminality in general. It’s true that black men are represented disproportionately for crimes in terms of arrests, convictions, and incarceration. Black males are also 21 more times to be shot than their white counterparts, and the number one cause of death for black males aged 15-34 is murder, which experts agree is largely due to geography and poverty.
But considering whites are thought to use drugs at similar rate as other races, but blacks more likely to be arrested, along with the proven persistence of racial profiling, it’s not unreasonable to deduce that white people are more likely to get away with their crimes, or be born into wealth, education, and the benefit of non judgement. This logic isn’t a leap. And yet, it offends.
A simple browsing of the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite will bring up anecdotal instances of whites getting away with more than blacks have been killed for, while the tag #AliveWhileBlack depicts the often tragic day-to-day racism experienced by people of color.
Now consider that historically, the law has treated African Americans as less than human. Though slavery is gone, biases remain en masse. The law still treats many black Americans inhumanely, if not necessarily in the case of Michael Brown, for which factual details are unfortunately scarce, most certainly in the case of Eric Garner, who posed no threat to officers to merit an illegal takedown via chokehold — a banned NYPD maneuver.
But if cops are the problem, as protesters say — and even if they are not at fault in most cases — it stands to reason the law should not treat them as more than human, but punish their mistakes as it does those of criminals.
But the conversation is often derailed, as many claim that individuals (black and white) must be taught better not to commit crime and to respect authority. But those that do should also agree that cops must better be taught that misconduct has consequences. The police more than anyone should value their job to protect over their own fear of otherness, which is fatal when attached to a trigger, or blocking sick man’s windpipe. Hopefully, most do.
Protesters march in NYC with empathy for the loss of life, asking that those with different worldviews simply believe people of color when they say they have experienced and witnessed racial injustice in America. If protests have been at times violent or destructive, this is a reflection of a small few, and has been an unfortunate symptom of riots by any group of humans throughout history regardless of race.
It’s true that cops have died wrongfully, as have soldiers, men and women of all ages, races, and social standings. But these are besides the point of this particular conversation — one wrongful death does not excuse another. Even if you disagree that these deaths were wrongful, having disdain instead of empathy towards strife and blaming dead victims is not becoming.
Alternatively, blaming the media is not totally unfair. We don’t see national coverage of stories when officers have acted with kindness and restraint, nor do we see much coverage of black Americans unless they have committed a crime. This kind of reporting breeds unhealthy generalizations. But it’s also true, however problematic, that the media broadcasts tragedy because there is demand for outrage, and a proven willingness to act upon it.
Unfortunately, there may always be hate at the extreme ends of every situation, unable to see beyond the shadows in which it lurks, unable to witness its own ugliness by taking one small step into critical light.
These attitudes can focused toward people of all colors, law enforcement, criminals, women, men — based mostly on shallow and anecdotal knowledge. But white people in particular too often can’t understand the perspectives of minorities due to a mostly unintentional self-segregation that blocks out voices of dissent — for example, 75% of whites have zero minority presence on their social media channels.
White people rarely need to think or worry about their whiteness, as in most cases they are the ruling majority.
“I can’t breathe” is what America might as well be gasping as a whole, as ingrained and ill-informed opinions block needed circulation from the air supply of lungs across the country.
People will disagree about the focus of race in this context, as is their right, but hostility is not the way to express dissent when for some, this isn’t just holiday gossip — it’s a reality. If you don’t have anything nice to say, and the issue isn’t one that affects you personally, it’s wiser to hold your tongue than lash in offense.
What people should not disagree on is that the police need to be kept accountable and held to a higher standard in the eyes of the law, as eyes of the law, or the cycle of distrust and misconduct will only continue.
Though solutions are far from concrete, only good will come of little changes such as cops wearing body cameras, though even footage did not help in Garner’s case. Likewise, investigations of police crimes should be handled externally, and the interests of prosecutors should not intersect with those of defendants. If you can indict a ham sandwich, after all, why not a police officer? These are the pertinent questions we should be asking, instead of taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter hashtags.
I’d like everyone to take pause, and ask yourself what it is that upsets you about these national stories, which are only a drop in a pool of others when it comes to police treatment of minorities. If that reason is a defensive or dismissive one, perhaps you should ask again — or better, ask someone experiencing the pain of these issues directly, and listen to what they have to say.
Now, breathe. You are blessed that you can.