Okay, that song’s damn catchy, you gotta admit. Inflammatory, sure, but catchy? YOU KNOW IT IS. But let’s check it…
There’s a recent example out of New York City that I want to address. Supposedly, a 400-pound man, Eric Garner, broke up a fight between two people. Those two people ran off and Garner was left there to talk to two police officers. The police officers, however, think Garner has been selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner in the video gets visibly agitated at what he perceives to be perpetual police harassment. When the officers go to arrest the man (by placing his arms behind his back), Garner doesn’t comply. He doesn’t want them to touch him and swats their arms away. This results in a shuffle where one of the officers then applies a choke hold to Garner, bringing him to the ground. Repeatedly, Garner says, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” You can hear him gurgling because of the pressure applied to his neck. They smash his face into the ground, still trying to secure his hands.
I’m just describing the video as we see it. We don’t necessarily know everything that led up to the beginning of the video, but we know what happened during the video. Now let’s address some points based on what we know to be true:
- Garner is a big, big man. At 400-pounds, if he doesn’t want to comply, this certainly presents a problem for law enforcement.
- Garner was a father of six.
- Garner had asthma, but it’s likely the officers were not aware of that (as far as we are aware; it seemed they had past dealings with each other, but we don’t know if the officers were aware of his asthma).
- According to CBS News, Garner had been arrested 31 times since 1988 on charges such as drug possession, selling untaxed cigarettes and assault.
- Also according to CBS News, the choke hold utilized by the police officer (wearing the #99 jersey) is prohibited by departmental policy.
- Garner died from cardiac arrest.
- Ramsey Orta, the man filming the video we see, told the press that he was sitting with Garner prior to the confrontation with police. He corroborates Garner’s series of events that he broke up a fight. He also mentions that Garner wasn’t feeling well and that’s why he pulled out his camera once the confrontation started.
- According to the New York Times, in 2007, Garner filed a handwritten complaint in federal court accusing a police officer of conducting a cavity search of him on the street, “digging his fingers in my rectum in the middle of the street” while people passed by.
This is all that we know as of now. But let’s talk about some things…
- Some will say, “If you can speak, then you can breathe” in response to Garner’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Maybe he was only saying that, so then the officers would release the hold and Garner would escape? Maybe, but there was also about 10 other officers backing up the two initial officers. I doubt Garner, at his size, was going to be able to flee on foot. He was also already on the ground and with 10 or so officers surrounding him, it was unlikely he would’ve made it to his feet. Moreover, how else are you supposed to signal distress than speaking to that distress? What would silence achieve? The gurgling noise Garner makes also indicates the pressure applied to his throat.
- Nobody should be trying to paint this scenario with broad brushstrokes of “fuck the police” or “Garner was a saint.” Maybe those 31 arrests are police harassment, maybe Garner was a career criminal, we don’t know. What we do know is that a man died because it was alleged he had sold untaxed cigarettes. This does not seem like the moral or sensible trade-off we want to see in our society. In other words, maybe there was a better way for the police to handle the confrontation, to de-escalate a clearly agitated man and so on. And to not use a prohibited choke hold.
- I think there is something to be said for the shift in de-escalating technique toward “aggression first” in policing. This is what those “in-the-know” call a low-level arrest. In other words, this ain’t no bank robber, rapist, murderer, violent criminal. It’s a dude that sold untaxed cigarettes. I don’t see how #99 doesn’t face some sort of disciplinary action and/or criminal prosecution for using a clearly prohibited choke hold. According to the New York Times, a choke hold is defined by police rules as including “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”
Check out the video below and form your own judgment in conjunction with the facts as we know them. Fair warning, it could be graphic for some: