Reflections on Eric Garner
By: Mak Ojutiku
It’s hard to assign a name to the mixture of emotions I felt when I first heard the news about the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case. About 3 PM, I was driving to my job when I heard it over the car’s radio: “The Staten Island grand jury dismissed all possible charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, in the chokehold death of Eric Garner”. If I have to describe that emotion, I’d say it involved dejection, disgust, definitely some rage, exasperation, all washed over with a sense of deep embarrassment. It wasn’t embarrassment over the jury or the verdict per se. It was more of an embarrassment over the fact that I somehow genuinely believed that this case would be different. But it should have been different, right? It wasn’t like the case of the shooting death of Michael Brown down in Ferguson, where we only had the words and accounts of witnesses and the police officer who pulled the trigger. No, with the Staten Island case, we had a full and seemingly undeniable video recording that showed Pantaleo choking and killing Garner. But obviously, that video didn’t matter. The case ended up the same way the Brown one did, and the same way that countless other similar cases in America’s history did. No indictment, and no jail time for the police officers responsible for destroying a black life.
The natural and human reaction to an injustice like this is outrage. Like many other young people, both black and nonblack, I took my outrage out to a protest. The night after the grand jury announcement, I, and many students of Kean University, peacefully marched around the school’s campus, and let our voices be heard. It was a beautiful sight, and many beautiful and intelligent things were said during that protest. During one of the speeches, a very important question was brought up. Who exactly should our outrage be aimed at? Which powers are responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, and countless others?
Some in the media, and outside of it, are determined to place the blame on the victims. People who have this opinion love respectability politics, which basically insinuates that if black people stopped sagging their pants and got college degrees, everyone else would stop discriminating against them. Former NBA player and current basketball analyst Charles Barkley recently got in the news for expressing these sentiments. Anyone who holds this opinion is obviously ignoring the fact the fact that Martin Luther King Jr was murdered, by a racist, while wearing a suit. They’re ignoring the fact that Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard University professor and Yale graduate, was arrested in 2009 for attempting to enter his own home. And as someone who’s been harassed by police while wearing the uniform of my academically respected upper middle class private high school, I can personally say that respectability politics are not based on anything that occurs in this reality.
Some think the media itself is partially responsible for things being the way are. To be fair, it doesn’t seem to help that almost every black victim of police brutality ends up being sentenced to a trial by the media. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old in Cleveland who was shot by a police officer, purportedly for waving a bb gun, recently had his short life examined by the media, or more specifically by the Northeast Ohio Media Group, and Cleveland.com. The news website wrote an article that detailed the criminal history of Tamir’s father. According to the site this was done because “people from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence.” The news website did not explain how Tamir growing up around violence, contributed to the police officer’s decision to shoot Tamir roughly two seconds after arriving to the scene and exiting his vehicle.
The most direct place to look is at the police departments themselves. The problem is there isn’t much to look at it. As it stands right now, there are no national or state registries that keep track of how often police shoot and kill civilians. That fact does a good job of showing the problem. Some say that police just need to be retrained slightly, or be forced to wear cameras. To get real progress, the entire police system and culture needs to be rehauled and reexamined. And we all need to start caring about these injustices. All of us.