The recent death of Eric Garner, while in police custody, horrified and angered me. A video shows that police placed Garner in a choke hold, a tactic prohibited by NYPD policy. And a second video shows that police failed to offer any medical assistance as an unresponsive Garner laid handcuffed on the ground. This scene and the range of emotions that I felt in response were all too familiar. Garner's death reminded me of the killing of Radio Raheem by the police in Spike Lee's film, Do the Right Thing. I recognize that this was a fictitious account of events in Brooklyn in the summer of 1989. Important similarities between Radio Raheem's and Garner's death, however, are haunting. In short, black men choked to death by a police officer while being held down by other officers.
Even if one dismisses any connection between Lee's fictitious account and Garner's death, there remain multiple real instants where police (or security personnel) were responsible for the death of black men. Who can forget Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 was shot with 41 police bullets; or Sean Bell, who in 2006 was shot to death by police on the morning of his wedding day? Who could forget Oscar Grant, the young man shot to death in an Oakland subway station while he laid handcuffed on the ground; or Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham? The message that these killings send me -- a 19-year old black male college student -- is that there is a blatant disregard for black male life. This realization sickens me.
As we move forward to think about how to get justice for Mr. Garner, our previous experience with the justice system's handling of the cases mentioned above leaves me less than optimist. A quick read of comments made on social media and articles written about the Garner killings indicates that we can expect to see a familiar playbook; the focus and blame will be placed on Garner's previous arrests and his physical size. In other words, he deserved to be killed because he had been arrested on multiple occasions and because he was large black man in "fighting stance" who frightened white police officers.
But, the video clearly shows that Garner was lamenting the fact that the police frequently harassed him. "Every time you see me," he said, "you want to harass me." This is a common experience black men share when dealing with the police. It is understandable that Garner would feel exasperated with those who are supposed to be protecting and serving him. It is not unreasonable to exclaim, "don't touch me" when one is being detained with little warrant and one is justifiably afraid of the police. Even if Garner resisted arrest, a competent officer would have used a different method to handle the situation. Considering that there was not just one officer, but four officers, it is not difficult to envision a safer arrest.
Others might point out the possibility that Garner possessed untaxed cigarettes and allegedly had a record of selling these cigarettes. Is it necessary for him to pay for such an offense with his life? Such arguments remind me of when Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell were accused of being intoxicated the night of their murders. Efforts to place the spotlight on Garner's character are simply tactics to avoid dealing with police misconduct. An examination of Officer Pantaleo's record, however, reveals troubling behaviors, especially whenever he has had interactions with black men. He has been sanctioned for false arrests and violating police procedures. Despite the fact that we can expect to see an assassination of Garner's character, we have to remember that he was accused of a nonviolent offense that should been met with a nonviolent solution. We do not kill people for running traffic lights, endangering pedestrians and fellow drivers.
I also want to highlight the long-term and damaging effects Garner's murder has on the black family. As stated earlier, Garner was a father of six. Imagining the pain of his loved ones is unbearable and I struggle to picture myself in that situation. The murder of Eric Garner reinforces the fact that families of color must engage in practices white families have no need for. The reason why my parents implored me and my younger brother to watch Do the Right Thing, why they had us learn about Black history outside of school, and why they and countless other black and brown parents have to explain the dubious nature of the police to their children is because they are afraid. They fear that we will be the next Eric Garner. They fear that we will be the next Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham or Jordan Davis.
As a young adult, it is normal for people my age to believe themselves invincible. I know this to be untrue, but I often forget this fact. With Eric Garner's death, I am reminded that black men are certainly not invincible, rather, they are endangered. Our white counterparts do not have to face this reality. How much more blood from black men must be spilled before white America admits the same and actively seeks justice, insisting on equal treatment?
Damon Hart is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in sociology and interned at Drug Policy Alliance.