The tragic death of Mr. Eric Garner that came as a result of the choke hold – an illegal police maneuver banned since 1994 – continues to provoke nationwide outrage, particularly in black communities. Consider for a moment, the reasons igniting this outrage – the excessive use of force leading to yet another death of an unarmed black man, and the political support for police in the face of a blatant lack of accountability to these seemingly routine acts of police misconduct and murder. But there’s deeper factor to consider here – the historical roots that branches out to the limbs of indifference afforded to black life.
Mr. Garner’s death continues to spark outrage because of the many people who can relate and connect through personal experience – the thousands who have been stopped and harassed by the police - and lived to talk about it. The thousands of stories about controlling that feeling that just grips you when you see the bright flash of the red and blue lights in your rear view mirror. Or the harassment that comes with being repeatedly stopped and frisked. Or the feeling of being fully aware that even the slightest encounter with the police can turn bad…and sometimes fatal. This connection was played out when the video was being played over and over again to the collective nods of approval. People are outraged because they connected with Mr. Garner when he crossed his arms in front of him and told the police officers that it stops today…we all knew what he meant by ‘it’. Mr. Garner said to the officers: "...Every time you see me you want to wrestle with me. I'm tired of it...it stops today...I'm minding my own business officer. Please leave me alone...I told you for the last time, please leave me alone."
This is why Mr. Garner’s death continues to resonate with the public consciousness - because of their connection to a shared experience. The outrage grew in the aftermath of Mr. Garner’s death when more videos displaying similar criminal acts by NYPD were released as well as chokehold statistics – 1022 chokehold incidents between 2009-1013.
There is nationwide as well as international outrage at the indifference the police officers and medical personnel granted to Mr. Garner – they killed him and then watched him die. And thank goodness the indifference to Mr. Garner’s humanity was captured on video for all to see. Think about it for a second or two, despite all that occurred in the last 30 seconds or so before he was brought down to the ground – Mr. Garner thought the police would recognize his humanity, his cry out for help, seven or eight times he said he couldn’t breathe – but instead, the world witnessed the failure of the police officers to recognize his humanity. The dismissal of Mr. Garner’s human rights for all to see has clearly struck a raw nerve in the collective public consciousness.
The video shows the police officers continuing to apply the pressure of their collective weight on him as he slowly breathed his last gasps of air. Then to further compound the tragedy – medical personnel appeared on the scene – and did nothing. Further proof of Mr. Garner’s human rights denied for all to see, thanks to yet another video shot on the scene. In the few minutes before Officer Daniel Pantaleo would apply the notorious chokehold that led to Mr. Garner’s death, you heard Mr. Garner say that ‘it’ stops today. The ‘it’ rang loudly for all those who experienced encounters with the police – understanding that each encounter with NYPD is a possible life and death situation. The ‘”it” represented the hundreds of thousands of incidents stemming from the harassment that came with being stopped and frisked. What the public witnessed was not what appears as a resistance to arrest but a deeper resistance to police harassment. The people clearly understood what Mr. Garner said – and that he spoke for everyone who was harassed and killed by NYPD. There is a considerable amount of weight behind Mr. Garner’s words when he said that I’m tired of this.
This issue of police brutality has long roots in the black community going back many years when the police were the enforcers of Jim Crow and legal segregation. The police were on the front lines of resistance to black liberation during the social movements of the Sixties – the socially transformational Civil and Black Power movements. The police departments were an integral part of the COINTELPRO program. The ‘it’ spoke to the long history of contentious relations between minority communities, particularly black communities and the police, not just in New York City but nationwide as well. But the ‘it’ also spoke to the nationwide capacity to protect the impunity of police violence visited on predominately black communities and the political support of the right to exert that police hostility and police violence. Oh yes, when Mr. Garner said, it stops today – he was speaking to and for all of us.
While there’s a fierce battle for the public perception around Mr. Garner’s death – the resistance to police brutality must frame these acts of police murder as human rights violations and recognize the humanity of black life. There must be indictments and incarceration that comes with accountability – but this must be framed within a human rights context. So the next time you hear or read news coverage about Mr. Garner’s resistance to arrest – just for a moment think to yourself: Was he resisting arrest or was he resisting harassment”? Think about it…
See Part I of Resisting arrest or Resisting harassment here
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To view a list of the victims - those killed by NYPD since February 1999 see the October 22 Coalition to stop Police Brutality Facebook page
Read an essay containing profiles of several unarmed black men killed by NYPD