Jon Stewart wasn’t funny last night. He apparently got the news just before air-time that the grand jury on Staten Island had not indicted anyone for the death of Eric Garner.
Eventually, Jon gave the only response really possible. He stared upward, and shouted at the top of his lungs the F-word.
This wasn’t a Michael Brown/Ferguson type situation. As Jon pointed out, this wasn’t a case where the forensic evidence was ambiguous and the eyewitnesses contradicted each other and who knows exactly what happened. If Darren Wilson had been indicted for the death of Michael Brown–which is absolutely what should have happened–it’s entirely possible that enough ambiguity existed for reasonable doubt; he could well have been acquitted.
The deadly assault on Eric Garner is here, on camera. It’s horrific stuff.
Watch it. You’ll hear him say, over and over, over and over and over, “I can’t breathe.” But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. He was apparently sick of being harassed. The police thought he’d been selling ‘loosies,’ individual cigarettes, a misdemeanor offense. Apparently, they’d cited him for that before. No cigarettes were found on him after the incident, though.
Here are a few links, if you’re interested. Here’s a link to Fox News, to an interview Greta van Susteren had with a medical examiner. Here’s the Washington Post, a story about the protests taking place nationally.
There’s one thing that strikes me about this video, though, especially the earliest bits of it, before the police start choking him. It’s the physical stance of the two officers, the one with his back to the camera, and the one partly obscured by the first guy. Back to the camera guy is motionless, standing his ground. But then he looks down and we can see just a hint of uncertainty. The other cop is more agitated, keeps looking over his shoulder for backup.
Here’s what I think: there was no reason for those two officers to be there confronting this guy. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was agitated, and upset with them for hassling him, but engaged in no other criminal enterprise. The situation escalates, but almost entirely because of the presence of the police. If they had simply said, ‘hey, sorry, we don’t mean to bother you, be on your way,’ there’s no reason to think that public safety would have been compromised.
But that would never happen, I think.
I would love for people who know more about it to correct me on this, but what I think is that police are trained never to back down from a confrontation. Never allow a civilian to disobey police instructions. Never, ever, let yourself be disrespected. Always maintain control of the situation, period.
We see maybe thirty seconds of their confrontation, and then there’s an edit to when they try to cuff him. And the police officers are talking too quietly to hear what they’re saying, but they sound calm and reasonable, and although Garner is respectful, he’s also clearly sick of it, sick of being hassled. But I wonder if there’s a kind of internal tension inside those cops. I think I can see it in their body language. A tension between doing the right thing–walking away–and following their training–maintaining ‘control’ of the situation.
The death of this man is a tragedy. The failure of a grand jury to indict is a travesty. An incomprehensible miscarriage of justice. And yet, from a police perspective, I do get it. To put this one officer on trial would be to indict the entire way in which police officers are trained in this country. It would be to indict the idea that police must always be obeyed. And given the very real dangers of their jobs, I can see police resisting that kind of scrutiny.
But that scrutiny has to happen. Watch the video again. I do not see these two officers as operating under a mandate ‘to serve and protect.’ No one was being served in this confrontation, and no one was being protected. A man objects to being interrogated on the street by two police officers. He was not engaged in any criminal activity. He could have, and should have, been left alone. And police training can and should emphasize discretion over confrontation, dialogue over control. But right now, I can see the relationship between police officers and the public (and especially the African-American public) spiraling further downwards, a cycle of mistrust, leading to confrontation, leading to tragedy, breeding greater hostility and mistrust. We’re there already, are we not?
We know that change in emphasis and tactics is possible, because that’s the way police are trained in Europe, and in Europe, police essentially never kill civilians. It can happen here too. And it would be better for everyone, the police included. But it’s going to take a national effort, and a national consensus. I don’t think there’s any reason for Eric Garner to have died. But maybe it will be worth something if it leads to genuine, actual change. At least that’s something to work for, and to hope for.