Eric Garner could have been me

August 13, 2014

headshotBy Damon Hart, Sophomore, Columbia University

The recent death of Eric Garner, while in police custody, horrified and angered me. A video shows that police placed Garner in a choke hold, a tactic prohibited by New York City Police Department (NYPD) policy. And a second video shows that police failed to offer any medical assistance as an unresponsive Garner laid handcuffed on the ground. This scene and the range of emotions that I felt in response were all too familiar. Garner’s death reminded me of the killing of Radio Raheem by the police in Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing. I recognize that this was a fictitious account of events in Brooklyn in the summer of 1989. Important similarities between Radio Raheem’s and Garner’s deaths, however, are haunting. In short, black men were choked to death by a police officer while being held down by other officers.
Even if one dismisses any connection between Lee’s fictitious account and Garner’s death, there remain multiple real instances where police (or security personnel) were responsible for the death of black men. Who can forget Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 was shot with 41 police bullets; or Sean Bell, who in 2006 was shot to death by police on the morning of his wedding day? Who could forget Oscar Grant, the young man shot to death in an Oakland subway station while he laid handcuffed on the ground; or Trayvon Martin, or Ramarley Graham? The message that these killings send me — a 19-year old black male college student — is that there is a blatant disregard for black male life. This realization sickens me.
As we move forward to think about how to get justice for Mr. Garner, our previous experience with the justice system’s handling of the cases mentioned previously leaves me less than optimistic. A quick read of comments made on social media and articles written about the Garner killing indicates that we can expect to see a familiar playbook; the focus and blame will be placed on Garner’s previous arrests and his physical size. In other words, he deserved to be killed because he had been arrested on multiple occasions and because he was large black man in “fighting stance” who frightened white police officers.
But, the video clearly shows that Garner was lamenting the fact that the police frequently harassed him. “Every time you see me,” he said, “you want to harass me.” This is a common experience black men share when dealing with the police. It is understandable that Garner would feel exasperated with those who are supposed to be protecting and serving him. It is not unreasonable to exclaim, “don’t touch me” when one is being detained with little warrant and one is justifiably afraid of the police. Even if Garner resisted arrest, a competent officer would have used a different method to handle the situation. Considering that there was not just one officer, but four officers, it is not difficult to envision a safer arrest.
Others might point out the possibility that Garner possessed untaxed cigarettes and allegedly had a record of selling these cigarettes. Is it necessary for him to pay for such an offense with his life? Such arguments remind me of when Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell were accused of being intoxicated the night of their murders. Efforts to place the spotlight on Garner’s character are simply tactics to avoid dealing with police misconduct. An examination of Officer Pantaleo’s record, however, reveals troubling behaviors, especially whenever he has had interactions with black men. He has been sanctioned for false arrests and violating police procedures. Despite the fact that we can expect to see an assassination of Garner’s character, we have to remember that he was accused of a nonviolent offense that should been met with a nonviolent solution.