That screenshot shows two New York City cops trying to convince the corpse of Eric Garner that he’s not dead. Garner, 43 and black, died after being put in a chokehold by the police for not allowing them to arrest him for, as the NYPD says, selling cigarettes illegally. That is, he was selling individual cigarettes for 50 cents each from untaxed boxes, and he needed to be stopped.
No, really. That’s why the police were confronting him in the first place, according to the cops involved. They could have written him a ticket. Instead, he was tackled and handcuffed by a group of cops who thought Garner, obese with asthma, was lying when he said, repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” One officer was kneeling on Garner’s head on the sidewalk as he tried to breathe. So he died and the white officers kept leaning in to talk to him to tell him to get up. Being dead, he could not obey the officers’ commands. It’s shocking they didn’t arrest his body.
As more than one editorial writer has pointed out, Garner was not a threat, was unarmed, was not doing anything violent – people on the scene claim he had just broken up a fight, and was, at most, committing a petty crime.
When he was on the ground, he received no medical attention, no CPR, no dosage of asthma drugs, nothing. It’s still unknown if he was killed by a heart attack, asthma, or strangulation. What is known is that Garner had been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes before.
What is known is that Garner had once handwritten a lawsuit claiming that he had been strip searched on the street. What is known is that the cop who put the chokehold on Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, had two civil rights lawsuits filed against him. One of them, where Pantaleo and another cop strip searched two Staten Island men in public, led to a $30,000 payout.
Another case is about unlawful arrest and is ongoing. In both cases, Pantaleo submitted reports that were sketchy at best. Now, he’s had his gun and badge taken away and he’s on unpaid leave, as are the EMTs who arrived on the scene, took Garner’s pulse, and did nothing else, which more than likely means he was dead already and there was nothing they could do.
By the way, chokeholds are prohibited by the NYPD. That’s probably why the police report does not mention one. The report also says that Garner did not seem to be in distress, so “I can’t breathe” must be something that cops hear all the time.
Garner’s crime was a misdemeanor. His greater crime was his unwillingness to submit to the authority of the NYPD, who, seeing their authority questioned, had to destroy the questioner for fear of losing their terrorizing position. What other reason is there for what they did? What other reason is there for pulling down the pants of young men and groping their genitals and probing their asses in full view of everyone? What other reason is there other than a desire to assert power over those who, due to race and class, have little if no means to counter that power?
By resisting the police, Garner was resisting the status quo, Garner was resisting history, he was resisting the identity that had been foisted on him by the white establishment. Now, quite unwillingly, he is another martyr to the racist assertion of police power, joining the ranks of Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and too many others to list. Of course, with the power of the police in New York City and around the country growing exponentially, despite all the talk of reform that will no doubt continue in the wake of Garner’s lynching, we will be here again.
Unless we are willing to confront our law enforcement history, the abuse of civil rights by the police, and the policies that encourage it, yes, assuredly, we will be.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 22, 2014, on The Rude Pundit, a website featuring commentary by Lee Papa. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Papa.