THE BLOG
12/11/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Eric Garner's Value

Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

This is how we know Black lives do not matter to the law. Or at least not nearly enough. Eric Garner's death now joins the litany of unarmed Black men who have died without any accounting at the hands of the police; so many in the last few weeks that a stunned American now shares in a distant way Garner's dying cries. We too can hardly catch our breath.

Those dedicated to denial will unleash their brand of dismissiveness. Decades of pent up anger leading to overwhelmingly peaceful protests across the nation are dismissed as a "mob" stirred on by "race-baiters." The condescending implicit argument is that all this harbored frustration is little more than people being fooled into being angry. I have been dumbfounded to hear repeated that the lesson is not one of racial disparate policing, excessive force and insufficient valuing of lives; it is one of insufficient submissiveness by minorities. "Just do what the police tell you and you will probably not get hurt."

Such arguments are dedicated to isolating every case in an effort to ignore the overwhelming lessons drawn from their context. Indeed, when encountering the phrase "Black lives don't matter," even those of good will bristle, discomfort leading to rejection. The accusation that the vast majority of White cops get dressed every day with the aim of killing young black and brown men seems preposterous.

But what is preposterous is the idea that the only way this complaint can have meaning. If the only thing that counts as a racial problem in policing is intentional killing, then we have chosen willful blindness. Eric Garner's death touches so many African-Americans because his life is one many share or recognize. No Eric Garner was not perfect but anger at mistreatment and abuse is not only the privilege of the perfect.

What protestors mean, at least in part, when lamenting that Black lives don't matter is that police and other legal institutions too often treat persons of color, particularly poor persons of color, with causal disdain. It begins in not just the policies but the values behind New York's "Stop and Frisk" era. It is chronicled in Judge Scheindlin's examination of instance after instance of Black men engaged in perfectly innocuous behavior being stopped by police, made to prove their legitimacy while their White counterparts go on their way. One can hear the lament in Garner's voice complaining of constant harassment by the police.

It is not just unwarranted attention that communicates contempt; for all I know Garner had committed the petty crime of selling loosies or single untaxed cigarettes. What Black people know, poor black people in particular, is the disdain with which too many officers treat the powerless. Rarely is a black person politely requested to do anything; orders are spat out, words barked communicating little more than contempt, any request for explanation or demand that one is treated with basic dignity is meet with seething anger that one would dare, be so uppity, as to not instantly submit. Shielded from the eyes of much of middle class America are the gross moments of domination, cops that shower people with swear words and racial epithets or let you know that they think of you as nothing more than a mutt. Just as no person of good faith denies the extraordinary challenges and heroisms of being a police officer, no person willing to listen should ignore the times we shield our eyes, hurrying past a police officer demeaning and humiliating someone, usually poorer and too often a person of color.

It is this background devaluing of minorities that permits such causal escalation of police encounters into violence. Too many stops, lead to too many disrespectful moments which all crescendo towards another outburst of anger and police over reaction. The pettiest of crimes, subject to simple admonition, perhaps a ticket, becomes the occasion for a takedown. Where a White or appropriately rich person would be at most cautioned, a Black man's head is pushed into pavement, his chest flattened and this throat crushed until his asthma and bad heart quit.

It is here that the cry "Black lives have no meaning" starts to come into view. Social status is an iterative thing. It is not enough to feel one is an equal in your society. That picture of the despised and beleaguered group with their head held high is noble but unstable. For equality to be secure, it is important not only that I believe I am your equal but that I believe that you believe that I am your equal. (And this set of beliefs must be widely iterated, radiating out such that we all believe that we all believe that we are equals.) Thus when, it is the official face of the law that treats one with contempt, it powerfully undermines the security that one is viewed as an equal.

It is little surprise that the thing for which Michael Brown's family most publicly longs is police officers wearing body cameras. For Black and Brown Americans, there is desperation; a feeling that if only others could see the daily indignities, condescending assumptions that one is overreacting or complaints are fabricated might recede. That is why if Ferguson frustrated, nagging with the doubt that any one-sided story would do justice, the lack of indictment in Garner's case causes not just protest and fury but perhaps more telling, speechlessness bordering on despair. Body cameras, the doubt gnaws, were an illusion all along. We can collectively watch as a man guilty merely of being loudmouthed, is wrestled to the ground by police, crushed while crying out for breath and see nothing that requires an accounting. The Grand Jury did not so see so much as probable cause that Officer Pantaleo may have been acted recklessly; for that matter even watching the use a police tacit banned for over two decades, they did not even see that a life was treated negligently.

In case after case, fault is deflected. Because we believe in reasonable doubt, we are told to shallow hard and live with the fact that we were not there. Indeed, who knows how Garner's death would have been described without the video; if like Michael Brown's death any other a side of the story would have been dismissed under conflicting eyewitnesses. But the Garner case drives home the most chilling doubt. Even when we all see what happened, the Grand Jury's eyes find nothing so much as worth calling to trial. A life can be so easily lost without an accounting. It is that settling dread that has broken over New York, St. Louis and countless other cities; the fear that in the eyes of the law, Black lives hardly matter.