In the space of nine days, two grand juries in two different towns found it unassailable for a cop in one town to shoot and kill an unarmed man 12 times, and for a bunch of cops in another to brutalize an unarmed man as one of the cops put him in a fatal chokehold. In both cases the murdered men were young and black. In both cases their killers were white cops. And of course in both cases the prosecutors who were supposed to get an indictment from the grand jury used the proceedings instead to run interference for the cops they work with every day.
Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight reports that in 2010, the latest year for which numbers are available, federal grand juries declined to return indictments 11 times—out of 162,000 cases. In other words, grand juries failed to return an indictment 0.007 percent of the time. But two prosecutors walked off with a 100 percent whitewash rate for their cops. They covered for them. They gave them a pass. And killers walked free, because they had a badge, and because their victims were, after all, just black. That tells us where we are in this color-blind society. Blind is right: it’s the blindness of the smug.
We have a black president, but that’s been the irony in chief of a decade when too many whites take it as proof of their favored delusion: that we’re in a post-racial society. This in a country where the wealth gap between whites and blacks is wider than it was in South Africa under apartheid, and has gotten 40 percent worse since Nixon became president, and in a country where young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than at a job. (Nicholas Kristoff outlined the facts you’ll never hear on Fox’s nightly hours of white self-pity in his “Whites Just Don’t Get It” series.)
Of course it’s blacks’ fault. They’re the jobless. They’re the moochers. They’re the criminals. There’s some truth to that when looking at the raw numbers, but only if you choose to cherry-pick and limit your historical perspective to yesterday’s brown-shirted version of talk radio. There’s more damning truth in the fact that blacks get sentenced to far longer terms than whites do for the same crimes, that a presumption of guilt shadows a black man far more than it does whites. What white person has experienced the assumption of threat that every black man has to live with in most whites’ eyes when they see him on the sidewalk, entering the elevator, waiting his turn at the ATM? None of that has changed in half a century of civil rights gains and Martin Luther King holiday sales, gains that effectively went into reverse, along with so much else in what George Packer calls America’s “unwinding,” since the Reagan years. Whether they’re a Harvard professor or a fat man selling cigarettes on a street corner, Blacks are still three-fifth suspects first and human beings last.
That’s what led to the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July, Michael Brown in Ferguson a few weeks later, and of course Trayvon Martin in Sanford in 2012 and Jordan Davis in Jacksonville the same year. At least a man was convicted for the killing of Jordan. And to appease the cynics, let’s concede that there was some ambiguity in the homicides of Martin and Brown, in the sense that only their killers really knew what happened. But there was no such ambiguity in the killing of Garner, which was caught on a clear and indisputable video.
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Garner is obviously unarmed. He’s not doing anything but standing at a street corner. He’d been arrested before for selling untaxed cigarettes and smoking pot, and he was probably selling cigarettes that day. Big deal. You don’t kill a man for that. You don’t even waste policing time on that. But it was Staten Island, which likes to think of itself as a place that has preserved a little touch of the old golden-age American where some people knew their place. Garner had, like most young black men, had his share of police harassment. He was in for it that day. “I’m minding my business, officer. I’m minding my business. Please, just leave me alone.” That’s what he told them. Then one of them tries to put handcuffs on him. He jumps on Garner, who at that point is no more than an animal to be harnessed. He puts a chokehold on Garner while three other cop goons rush in, then four, smash him to the ground and cuff him. One of them has his whole weight pressing on Garner’s head against the concrete. Garner is panting: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Watch the video. Watch the cops not give a damn. Watch them turn cigarette-selling into a crime against their version of humanity. And what humanity it is. Watch a man die because cops were indignant that a big fat black man in a t-shirt and shorts was daring to tell them to leave him alone. You don’t speak that way to cops. Not just on Staten Island, but anywhere in America, where reasoning with a cop is synonymous with resisting arrest, and resisting arrest is every hotshot cop’s self-fulfilling proof that the bastard was worth arresting in the first place. I can hear it now: Don’t resist. Comply. None of this would happen otherwise. Not that Garner was given a choice. The moment his killers jumped him, he was immediately fighting for his life, and his body reacted accordingly. To the cops, he was resisting. Therefore force was justifiable. Even deadly force.
So goes the circular snag of a cop’s cuff in a country so enamored of force that police agencies, including our own, use SWAT teams to serve warrants for marijuana possession—a substance less lethal than cigarettes—and no one bats an eye. People rather applaud even as the din makes the Fourth Amendment sound like a yappy poodle to be kicked to the curb. We love the brawn and the high-powered rifles. And if you brought in a tank to the festivities they’d probably salute and ask for the driver’s autograph. You can’t entirely blame those goons on Staten Island for making a beast of Eric Garner. It’s how the us-versus-them mentality that started emerging in the 1980s has enabled cops to see their “mission” as a war, with citizens as their enemies, and blacks of course, or anything off-white and worse, as worse than enemies: as animals. If you think this is hyperbole, have a look at the Eric Garner video. Nothing exaggerated there, especially not the outcome. Then imagine the daily and nightly horrors not caught on video and inflicted on a few million Eric Garners around the country in the confines of unaccountable judge-and-jury policing.
The chokehold incidentally was outlawed at the New York Police Department 20 years ago. But who cares. Cops have their own rules, and if push comes to choke, they have their own prosecutors watching their back. As with Eric Garner, they probably guessed that they’d get away with it. And they have. That’s justice in America, in post-racial black and white. Stop resisting.