Without description or comment, director Spike Lee posted a short joint to the web this week. The one-minute video interspersed the footage of NYPD officers choking Eric Garner to death as he gasps "I can't breathe" with a scene from Lee's 1989 movie Do The Right Thing, in which the character Radio Raheem is also choked to death by a New York cop.
Lee didn't offer up a specific reason for juxtaposing the fictional death and the real footage. His video tells us something more important that any life-imitates-art style platitudes, though. It reminds us that cops brutalizing and killing black men in New York is nothing new — it was recognized enough to resonate in late 80s popular culture and, 25 years later, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is not the New York of 1989, but the police force has maintained the same dark tendencies. It's worth noting, as Slate pointed out, that the "Do The Right Thing" death was itself inspired by the real-life killing of Michael Stewart in 1983 by a police choke hold.
In response to Garner's death and the attendant public outrage, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced Tuesday that he would be overseeing widespread changes to police training and tactics. Although not explicitly stated by Bratton, a senior NYPD source told The New York Times that the expanded use of Taser stun guns is under consideration. This would not mark a change in policy away from choke holds, which were already banned in 1993. And to be sure, there's no promise of better police conduct if Tasers became more prominent. Cops remain a lethal force, imbued with impunity. There have, after all, been a reported 547 deaths following police use of Tasers in the US since 2001, according to Amnesty International.
One wonders whether Garner would have preferred a heart attack prompted by electric shocks instead of a cop's arm around his neck. Would the unarmed man's death have been preferable had it been caused by legal instead of illegal police tactics? Was the death of Imam Morales, struck down by a police Taser in 2008, a better sort of death-by-cop? Or perhaps Garner would have rather had the fate of 21-year-old Baron Pikes, who was stunned while handcuffed by a Louisiana police Taser gun a reported eight times within 15 minutes, and then died.
Hopes that deaths like Garner's, or Stewart's, won't be repeated may find some ground in Bratton's promise of a "top to bottom review" of all NYPD training. However, responses to the choking from police representatives, both official and unofficial, serve as a troubling counter to any such optimism. Online law enforcement forums PoliceOne.com and The Rant, where cops comment anonymously, have been littered with disturbing defenses of Garner’s killers.
"I think they were very generous, maybe too generous in the amount of time they allowed this guy to vent," wrote one commenter. "Tough shit and too bad," wrote another.
The official line from the police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is no more reassuring. In response to Bratton's announcement, the union president told the Wall Street Journal that his organization is “always in favor of training that make us better at our job. But what we really need training for is what we aren't allowed to do and what will get us in trouble.”
The concern, then, is not over police brutality, but whether or not cops can get away with it. The two officers who held Garner as he gasped for air have not lost their jobs, they have simply been reassigned to desk duties. Garner's 18-year-old son, Eric Snipes, said at a street rally this week that he wants one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, to be behind bars. “He should be in jail. No protective custody, either. Put in the [general] population,” Snipes said. His comment reflects more faith in the prison population to deliver retribution than the justice system. For good reason.
Officer Richard Haste was acquitted of charges last year after shooting dead unarmed Bronx teen Ramarley Graham as he ran into his grandmother's bathroom. Another unarmed black man, Sean Bell, was shot dead by NYPD officers in 2008. The three cops responsible were found not guilty of manslaughter. And famously, in 1999, 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, also unarmed, was shot and killed by four plain clothes cops, who all were acquitted of charges. If officers who shoot dead unarmed black men receive this sort of impunity, what fear need cops have of exerting excessive force with Tasers, batons, or their bodies? Spike Lee could well continue his splice of late-80s fictional New York and the city's contemporary reality. In both cases, the death of a black man at the hands of police produces anger without justice.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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