Before Eric Garner stated "I can't breathe" 11 times under the weight of several police officers, he committed what is now considered a non-violent crime in today's America. Before an officer shoved his face into the pavement, after he was already on the ground and had no chance of getting up, the married 43-year-old with six children broke an unspoken rule in this country. His offense had nothing to do with being a threat to anyone nor was he in the act of committing a crime. Had he been caught in the act of selling illegal cigarettes, Garner would have been arrested on the spot. But no, his transgression was simply an emotion and a sentiment that many Americans, both white and black, can relate to:
Eric Garner is dead today because he didn't quietly "comply" with officers. As a result, he experienced what could happen to any citizen, especially a citizen of color, who rightfully feels indignant for what he or she perceives to be harassment.
The Garner tragedy is a testament to how American society views race, justice, and class. It's a mirror into the psyche of the United States and shows us who we are as a nation. Suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes can end in a death sentence. Conversely, nobody has been convicted in a 2008 financial crisis that cost Americans $12.8 trillion in lost wealth. If we're not careful, more people could die in 2015 from the crime of simply expressing their thoughts in a manner that is deemed to be "resisting arrest."
According to medical examiners, Garner's death was ruled a "homicide" from "the compression of [Garner's] chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." According to the NYPD, chokeholds were to "only be used when the officer's life was in danger," and the video footage shows that Garner was never even remotely a threat. However, some people believe this African-American man actually caused his own demise.
Republican Congressman Peter King's version of events bordered on a maniacal attempt at justifying what most human beings can see (even those who side with police) as an egregious use of force:
"The police had no reason to know he was in serious condition," King said on CNN. "You had a 350-pound person who was resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible. If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died."
If you can watch the video of Garner's death and believe only "asthma and a heart condition" caused this catastrophe, the word "sociopath" might describe your current mental state.
African-Americans, however, are the one group of Americans who suffer most from incidents like Garner's ordeal. Nine out 10 people "stopped and frisked" in New York were either African-American (53% were black and 34% were Latino) or Hispanic in 2011. Pew Research states that nationwide, around 27% of blacks live in poverty. PBS states that black children in America face a 38% poverty rate. African-Americans, more than any other group in the United States, face the highest rates of poverty and incarceration. In fact, The Wall Street Journal states that blacks face 20% longer sentences than "those of white men for similar crimes in recent years, an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found."
For everyone who says that racism doesn't exist in America, let's look at the words of Ida B. Wells in The Red Record, written in 1895:
"In lynching, opportunity is not given the Negro to defend himself against the unsupported accusations of white men and women. The word of the accuser is held to be true and the excited bloodthirsty mob demands that the rule of law be reversed and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the victim of their hate and revenge must prove himself innocent..."
No, Eric Garner's death wasn't a lynching. But can we honestly say that that The Red Record has zero relevance in 2015? If Ida B. Wells were alive today, how would she view Congressman Peter King's belief that Garner's heart condition, rather than a police chokehold, caused his own death?
Simply put, could African-Americans living in 1895 relate to the plight of African-Americans living in 2015?
If the answer is yes, Eric Garner's death should teach us all some painful and valuable lessons about who we are as a nation. If the answer is no, then one must also explain why every death of an unarmed black man is instantly justified by half the population. Why does Sean Hannity constantly berate members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Fox, while painting Cliven Bundy as a hero?
Is Sean Hannity racist, or just being a "fair and balanced" journalist?
Eric Garner should be alive today, but he made a fatal mistake in today's America. He shouted, when he should have "complied." He argued when he should have spoken softly, so as not to anger the authorities.
He verbally expressed indignation at feeling harassed and unfairly targeted, and now he's dead.
This post is part of the "28 Black Lives That Matter" series produced by The Huffington Post for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will shine a spotlight on one African-American individual who made headlines in 2014 -- mostly in circumstances we all wished had not taken place. This series will pay tribute to these individuals and address the underlying circumstances that led to their unfortunate outcomes. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #28BlackLives -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.