Before the camera shut off, the police officer who had put the lethal choke hold on Eric Garner looked directly into the lens and explained, “this wasn’t about the fight. This had something to do with something else.”
It seems he meant to obfuscate, but being an officer of the law, he spoke truer than he knew. This death wasn’t just an isolated death; it had something to do with something else.
Why are more people, and more kinds of people, upset about the death of Eric Garner and the failure to even indict the police who took him down? Partly it’s the power of the video, which captures the interaction so fully and preserves the pitiful final words of Garner. But I think the most significant factor is that this outrage comes across our national awareness before the Ferguson outrage (death of Michael Brown, refusal to indict officer) has dissipated. We haven’t even caught our breath from Ferguson, and now this. I think a lot of Americans are experiencing the Ferguson-Garner combination as a one-two punch, with no break in between. Let us have a little slack, a break in between these events! But no: as Ferguson protests continue and calls for justice escalate, a whole other outrage comes across our screens. Can’t we let things simmer down first, reset back to “everything’s pretty much okay” level for a few weeks?
No. And that, I suspect, is what has given a lot of white people a glimpse of the way a lot of black people have been experiencing these stories for a long time now. It doesn’t take a very long memory to recall Trayvon Martin: it was only July of 2013 that a jury found his shooter not guilty.
Polls show that white Americans tend to view each of these events in isolation: even if they think there’s probably some systemic bias against blacks in there somewhere, they think of the Trayvon case as one complex case with its own set of evidence, and the Brown case as another to be handled on its own, and now Garner as a third isolated incident with a different set of evidence to be weighed.
But for the Eric Garner case to become public while the Michael Brown case is still in the front of our minds: that makes us stumble, stagger a bit, miss a step. Why this again? Why didn’t we have a chance to re-set back to OK in between?
That yearning to re-center as soon as possible on OK is a real problem. It’s the thing that’s wrong with the attitude of a lot of white Christians who are right about lots of other things: they hate racism, believe that it is a sin, and they believe everybody is equally in the image of God and ought to be treated equally. But they also think that we are currently existing in a state of pretty fair equilibrium, that the ship is sailing forward pretty steadily with only occasional upsets that are soon enough corrected. And because they presuppose that, they expect to be able to get through these rough patches (“Okay, NOW racism’s over, right?“) and back to smooth sailing. They can’t quite understand why anybody would view things differently: that the ship is taking on water, veering off course or going in circles, running out of fuel, not doing basically OK.
Ferguson-then-Garner has helped some people see that the steady-as-she-goes image is not plausible.
This is more like the way a lot of black Americans have been seeing things: one case after another, mostly not big news items, mostly not lethal, all with complex legal entanglements of their own, but relentless and never a break in between them. Follow responsible black voices on Twitter and the hashtags proliferate: #EricGarner #TrayvonMartin #MikeBrown #TamirRice #JohnCrawford It’s always something.
In fact, it’s always something that has something to do with something else. The death of Eric Garner has something to do with the relentless stream of instances of black men being harassed, arrested, imprisoned. A lot of black people have been seeing this and paying attention to it for a long time. Perhaps a few more people have started tracking it since Trayvon Martin’s death. But it looks to me like more people, and more kinds of people, are now paying attention. I’m especially encouraged by the fact that more Christians, and more kinds of Christians, are paying attention. Even people who think Michael Brown was being a bully and Eric Garner wasn’t perfect have been stunned by the back-to-backness of these two stories of legal processes following the death of black men at the hands of the police.
It’s a punch in the gut followed by another punch in the gut, with no time in between to catch a breath: “I can’t breathe.”
Think about how the one-two punch feels, and then imagine yourself feeling it as a one-two-three-four-five-six-when-is-this-ever-going-to-stop sequence. This is a key opportunity for empathy, for sympathetic imagination, for looking at things from the perspective of another group of people. There are lots of black people writing and speaking about these things right now. It’s time to listen.