The deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City have largely been seen as two instances of the same tragedy. In both cases, the actions of white police officers led to the deaths of unarmed black men. However, there are key differences that make the death of Eric Garner a clearer example of systemic racism in law enforcement. Here are five of those differences.
1. The incident was caught on camera.
The high level of controversy surrounding events in Ferguson is largely due to the lack of a clear version of events surrounding Michael Brown's death. Eyewitness testimony (some of which directly contradicted Darren Wilson's version of events) has varied. Even more crucially, there is no videotape. Ultimately, no living soul knows exactly what happened from start to end between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, with the exception of Wilson himself. This is not the case with Eric Garner's death. We can all clearly see on video that Garner isn't threatening the police officers in any way. Garner merely argues a bit before one officer attempts to handcuff him, prompting Garner to put his hands up and ask that the officers not touch him. The situation escalates only once NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo puts Garner into the now-infamous chokehold that led to his death.
2. People all across the political spectrum agree that something is wrong.
Michael Brown's death was similar to the much-publicized 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in that it seemed to divide Americans largely on political party lines. It's hard not to notice that whenever an unarmed black person is killed by a white person, Democrats (who are vastly younger and more racially diverse than Republicans) usually tend to be much more open to the idea that race was a contributing factor in the killing. Members of the older and whiter Republican Party tend to rally around defending the accused killers based on the premise that they acted in self-defense. This is not the case with Eric Garner. Although some prominent Republican politicians have blamed Eric Garner for his own death, the most notable examples being U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-New York) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, most people are in agreement that a complete lack of any accountability for Officer Pantaleo is disturbing.
3. There is no way it was self-defense.
As mentioned previously, the defense of those who kill unarmed black men seems to typically revolve around the notion that the accused acted in self-defense. That can be categorically ruled out in the case of Eric Garner. Garner was in fact a large man, weighing in at around 350 pounds. However, the only movements he makes during the video are hand gestures while he is arguing with the officers, and some slight waving when one of them tries to handcuff him. According to video evidence, he was not a threat to any of the officers.
4. It goes beyond just one officer's actions.
I counted at least five officers who were on the scene to deal with Garner for allegedly selling individual cigarettes. About 1 minute and 30 seconds into the most widely circulated video of the incident, the officer who attempted to handcuff Garner before the chokehold says, "All right, all right, stop, stop, stop." It is not clear if this officer's words were directed toward Pantaleo for the chokehold or Garner for resisting arrest. None of Officer Pantaleo's other colleagues suggest that he end his rather long chokehold, nor do they tell him to stop pushing Garner's head into the sidewalk once he's been taken down. What we're left with is a video showing five trained white police officers taking down one lone black man with enough physical force to lead to cardiac arrest and ultimately death. This is not one bad apple but several police officers using excessive force on a suspect of a nonviolent crime who posed no immediate danger to anyone.
5. The grand jury has not released documents.
The effectiveness of grand juries to indict police officers for misconduct has been called into question after both the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. However, in Brown's case the grand jury not indicting his killer released a litany of documents and information that helped lay out the justification for their decision. The grand jury that chose not to indict Officer Pantaleo has largely withheld similar information that might help explain the reasoning behind their almost universally panned decision. One can't help but wonder if they are confident in the logic behind their non-indictment when they won't even release any substantial information or reasoning that led to it.
These key differences make the death of Eric Garner a particularly stark reminder that race does play a part in how the law is enforced in America. I say this as someone who was not a part of the outrage surrounding the death of Mike Brown. However, I cannot imagine in a thousand years that a police officer would've tackled me to the ground in a chokehold during the exact same sort of exchange that led to Eric Garner's death. I can think of no reason that Garner was treated differently than me other than the fact that I am white and he is black.