If you haven’t heard about Eric Garner yet, let me fill you in. He was a 43-year-old father of six who lived in Staten Island, and he died in the street on Thursday after as many as four New York police officers choked him and slammed his head on the ground. The NYPD told the Associated Press that they stopped Garner because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, something he’d been arrested for before. However, witnesses who spoke with local news website Staten Island Live have basically said that’s bullshit. Ramsey Orta, who was on the scene and shot a now infamous video that is making the rounds, can be heard in the clip saying that all Garner had done to get bothered by the police was break up a fight.
In the video, Garner denies any wrongdoing and asks why he’s being hassled. “Every time you see me you want to mess with me," he says in an exasperated tone that most men of color across this country can relate to. Garner, who was 400 pounds and has been described by people who knew him as a “gentle giant,” suffered from chronic asthma and police claim his death was the result of a heart attack suffered during the arrest.
Police say that Garner made a “fighting stance” and resisted arrest. Which, based on the video clip, is complete nonsense, considering we can see him pleading to the officers, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe!" before going completely silent as several officers pile on him.
The video of Garner’s death is disgusting, but I can’t say I was shocked or even outraged the first time I watched it. At this point, as someone who’s read and written about some of these stories time and time again—and who's had firsthand experiences with the way cops treat black males—this kind of reprehensible shit is not surprising at all. After so many cases like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, you start to feel desensitized by the seemingly insurmountable injustice that plagues communities of color.
As an editor at VICE, I am well aware of how often the “Black Person Is Abused by Police” story arises in the news cycle. It’s become sort of an evergreen editorial topic for us, like anal sex or circumcision activism. If one of my contributors submits a piece on the phenomenon of unarmed black dudes getting shot by the cops a little past deadline, I just tell them to wait a few weeks and we’ll be able to run it again when the next black kid gets killed with a few of the details changed. We’ve even resorted to running Bad Cop Blotter, a column dedicated to the brutality of American police just to chronicle it all—because the instances are so numerous that we can’t commission full articles every time it happens across the country.
In the time since I wrote about the curious case of Victor White in Louisiana (local police claim that White shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a cop car), my inbox has been getting blown up by grieving black parents and community members from all over the country who are suspicious about the events that transpired in altercations between the police and their loved ones. These stories are everywhere—sometimes they’re never reported or they end in trumped-up charges.
This long legacy of police brutality really hit home for me a couple weeks ago, when I was sitting in a lush theater seat at the industrial-chic BAMcinématek to see the 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. If you haven’t seen the classic film, it takes place in the late 80s on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood as tensions mount between the blacks, Italians, and the NYPD. The movie hit theaters a few years before the 1992 riots in Los Angeles and can been seen as a perfect encapsulation of that era’s contentious race relations. The climax of the film, which ends in a race riot, is punctuated by the iconic young black character Radio Raheem (played masterfully by Bill Nunn) dying in the choke hold of NYPD officers. Most famously, as Raheem gasps in vain, the camera frames just his twitching feet, making a horrific visual allusion to the history of black lynching in the United States. To me, this shot has always signified a truth often ignored through all of our claims of equality and progress—that the plight of the black man in America hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think. It’s so incredibly disheartening to think that a film made about the racial turmoil of the early 90s is just as relevant today as it was a quarter of a century ago.
Like the fictional death of Radio Raheem, the actual death of Eric Garner is a blatant reminder that in the eyes of the law, black lives are worth a lot less in this country than whites and that black men are still seen as needing to be controlled and killed if necessary— just as they were in antebellum South. If you’re a black man, that harsh reality is the kind of shit that haunts you so much that it almost seems easier to acquiesce and just give up. Why expend emotion over something that seems like it will never ever change? That’s the question I jadedly asked myself as I watched Eric Garner’s video. It wasn’t until I hit social media that I was pulled out of the hopeless, resolute reality of these incidents. There, on Facebook feeds and Twitter hashtags, I was emboldened by the righteous indignation of my peers of all colors, clamoring at the clear fucked-up-ness surrounding the NYPD and Garner's death.
For what it’s worth, we’ve got to keep talking about the Eric Garners and the Ramarley Grahams and the Kenneth Chamberlains of the world in the hope—even if it is a blind hope—that this shit doesn’t happen again.
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