Federal prosecutors said Tuesday, July 16, 2019, that they won’t bring criminal charges against a White New York City police officer in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, a Black man whose dying words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry as the nation confronted a long history of police brutality. We are revisiting this sharp commentary by Charles F. Coleman Jr. from July 2014.
Since the news of Eric Garner’s murder has hit the media, I have wrestled with what it is that can be said to make sense of this tragedy. Another unarmed Black man who was, at most, resisting arrest for selling loose cigarettes, and, at least, completely innocent, has been killed by the excessive use of force by law enforcement. As a former prosecutor, I try to remain as objective as possible when considering the actions of police in certain situations. I am proud to state that many of my friends of all races are members of law enforcement and execute their duties with the highest regard for respect and in the interest of justice. I am also sensitive to the fact that being a police officer requires an enormous amount of split-second decision making and failure to use the right amount of discretion can be the difference between life and death. However, as a Black man, the messages sent to me in the wake of Garner’s death are a stark reminder of what he, I and so many others like us represent to America.
One of the alleged justifications that NYPD has continued to offer in an attempt to explain the officer’s conduct is Garner’s size and the fact that he needed to be subdued. Even in watching the video, it is clear that Garner towered over the officer in stature. However, in watching most of that horrifying video (I can’t bear to view it in its entirety), I can’t help but think that it wasn’t about a reaction to Garner resisting arrest (read: fighting for his life) but actually a reaction to what Garner represented in the mind and psyche of that officer. It reminds me of a cautionary warning my mother often repeated to me when growing up.
“When you deal with police, you must be careful. You are big and they will automatically see you as a threat.”
Eric Garner was 6’3”, 350 lbs.
I’m 6’4”, 235 lbs.
My presence, as a Black man who has done nothing which is actually threatening, still poses what others will deem an actual threat.
This scares me.
If this were about something as simple as being bigger than the average human, I would have very little to argue. Black males certainly don’t have any ethnic monopoly on being large. Yet somehow, the fear and fascination of the Black body that so many hold in their subconscious leads to vastly different reactions to us as to other races. What’s more disconcerting is the notion that, whether you’re a privately acting neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida or a New York City police officer, it seems that the number one threat to public safety and order and highest crime fighting priority is the Black male. For all of our progress as a society, and as a people, one thing has not changed: chained or free, the Black man is a threat and must be kept in line under the watchful eye of “authority” in whatever form.
Eric Garner may not have been a saint. Pro-law enforcement media, under the guise of fair and balanced reporting, has made a point to note that Garner had a fairly extensive arrest record (not all convictions; there is an important difference). Still, even as he was no stranger to the criminal justice system, Garner had been in custody over 25 times … and somehow managed to live to tell about it before being choked to death. I say this because for those who would want to push the “He was a known perp who resisted arrest” angle, it is much harder to understand why someone familiar with the system would “resist” to that degree unless there was indeed a life-threatening level of discomfort. Generally, telling someone “I can’t breathe” counts as life threatening.
Sometimes the simple answer is the right one: Police continue to see the mere presence of Black men as threatening and are fearful of Black rage, no matter how justifiable that rage. Beyond that, officers have a lower regard for Black life and the backlash/penalties for failing to exercise appropriate levels of discretion when dealing with Blacks. It’s hard to say how this would have played out in a different neighborhood with the same officer and a White man, simply because in my professional experience as a former member of law enforcement and my personal experience as a New Yorker, it is nearly unfathomable that a NYPD cop would be as fearless in using such force with anyone who wasn’t Black. If you talk to many police officers here and they are speaking candidly, they will often reveal they are loathe to even conduct traffic stops or to issue moving violations—much less have any physical contact involving even the lowest degree of force—to members of certain communities for fear of the backlash they would receive.
I don’t know when this stops. I don’t know if it stops. I don’t know if it is even possible to disregard one’s life’s experiences and personal biases for the sake of one’s professional duties. I know that I, and so many others like me, are simply just tired of being targeted and treated in a particular way for little reason other than being what society has deemed … a threat. I pray that the Garner family finds comfort and peace in their loss, and eventually, justice as well.