12.04.2014

Life Matters. Eric Garner Mattered. You Matter. We Are All Worth More Than Violence and Polarization.

I am a journalist. As a journalist, I take my role very seriously to present unbiased facts in my narrative, and allow the people I interview to tell their stories. Opinions come through my subjects' quotes, and the reader is welcome to form his or her own opinion about whether to agree or disagree. My vocation, on newsprint, is to serve as conduit and informant.
However, there are days like yesterday that make me wish I was a columnist. And as I whittle several swirling thoughts down in my mind from a 500-page opus to a brief-ish blog post or two, please forgive and accept my twists and turns and branching thoughts.

Here is the story: the impetus for that imaginary column I'd like to write today.


The Eric Garner Story

Yesterday, police officer Daniel Pantaleo, a man who put a chokehold on Staten Island resident Eric Garner, followed by a knee to hold down his head, walked away without an indictment. (The United States Attorney General said that the case will be reviewed for civil rights violations.)

According to Ramsey Orta, the man who took the viral video that showed the violent arrest to the world, the police initially responded to the incident, not because of Garner's alleged illegal "loosie" cigarette sales (which, just to be crystal clear, is *not* a crime punishable by death in the United States), but because of a street fight. Although the fight is not on video, Garner can be seen telling the police to stop bothering him and go talk to the people who were fighting; he asks them to understand that he was trying to keep peace in the neighborhood by breaking it up while others looked on and did nothing. He is then accused of illegally selling cigarettes, has a heated (but by no means violent or confrontational) discussion, is put in a chokehold banned by NYPD, thrown to the ground while repeating over and over that he can't breathe, kneeled on, and arrested. He died shortly thereafter.

(The link above, on the Time website, is worth clicking after you've read this post. It has additional footage of the incident, a similar incident at the same location, and commentary by the videographer that I had not previously seen.)

The medical examiner's report, per several legitimate news sources, called the death a homicide due to a "compression of the neck." I couldn't find a copy of the original report floating online and didn't want to order it and wait on it simply for the purpose of a blog post, but if you've run across an image of the report, I would really like to see it. Please post a link in the comments. 

Other factors that led to him being more prone to a fatal breathing injury, including asthma and obesity, were noted, but the medical examiner clearly revealed: Eric Garner would not have died in that moment if he had not been choked to death.

The facts of the case include details that Eric Garner was a black man and Daniel Pantaleo is a white cop.  


Momentary Pause:
On "Black," "White" and "Brown"

(Side note admittedly-white-privilege-framed soap box that I should probably edit out for length, but choose to leave anyhow because it relates to why I see and tell the story first without reference to color, and then add it at the end: 

I prefer to see people as all different shades of brown, each shade combined with family and personal history to create an innate, unique cultural heritage and beauty, united by the human race. It fits my concept of our value and worth as humans better than defining a person as "black" or "white." We're all truly born in shades of brown. I accept that it is not a widely held notion. 

I wish that the titles "black man" and "white officer" didn't matter. But I know that they do. I recognize it is a part of each person's story.

I also acknowledge, with a heavy heart, that those on the darker shades of the human skin spectrum are in no way treated with the same dignity and respect as those of us with light shades. And that my personal view does not translate into the way people are treated by anyone but me.

I know that the darker your skin, the less you are likely to earn—even with similar experience and education, the fewer educational opportunities you are generally afforded, and the more often you are treated as suspect or criminal without any cause, whether that is by police, neighbors or strangers. 

I know that you're at a higher risk of being pulled over or arrested for no reason. I know that you're taught from a young age to keep quiet, act demure, avoid eye contact, use "ma'am" and "sir" and submit to law enforcement, even when you're being approached without cause and should have the right to speak up. 

I know that you're likely to serve far more time for a misdemeanor, or to serve any time for a mistaken arrest, than people who look more like me. I know that there are normal life situations that are more dangerous for you than they are for me simply because you have more pigment in your skin than I do.

I know that it is unfair, and it is wrong. And despite my technicolor shades-of-brown, la-di-da, we-are-the-world, celebrate-the-diversity-of-the-human-race view, the sad fact is identifying one man as black and another man as white, and pointing out that difference, does matter here.

Also probably worth noting: I use the term "black" rather than African-American when I do talk about skin "color" because I find "African-American" restrictive, inadequate and inaccurate. 

Partially because there is enough mistreatment, misinformation and racism against people all around the world related to dark skin that I do not see it as purely an African-American issue. 

And partially because even here in the United States, there are so many non-American-born or non-American-identifying black people, whether they are from the African continent or the Caribbean or elsewhere, that I would be remiss to call them African-American. I believe they face many of the same prejudices that self-identifying African-American citizens face. 

That said, I also value and find truth in the idea that there is an additional gravitas associated with African-American history that fundamentally alters the discussion surrounding race relations in our country. And I wholeheartedly respect whichever term you choose to use.)

Back to the Garner Case


More facts: 
  • Garner was unarmed, and at no point was he suspected to have a weapon. 
  • The incident happened in broad daylight. 
  • Garner kept his hands in clear view at all times, and never approached or threatened any police officer. 
  • Garner did not instigate any physical altercation with the police. 
  • The video does not include at any time the phrase, "You are under arrest," nor were Miranda rights read at any time prior to the chokehold, to suggest that Garner was resisting a verbal warning of arrest. (It could have happened prior to or outside of the recording seen; the video is relatively brief.) 
  • Garner was verbally—not physically—resisting the police accusation and notion that he was selling cigarettes illegally at that time. Considering the circumstances, in my opinion, it could hardly be called angry or confrontational, and certainly could not be called violent. In fact, I believe he was reacting and speaking in a reasonable, albeit visibly annoyed, fashion.
  • There are a dozen or so cops seen standing around the scene after Garner has been taken down. (Insert opinion here: excessive for a man accused of selling a couple of cigs illegally.)


The Police

I support the work that police officers do. They dedicate their lives to a dangerous occupation, and many help, save and inspire people during their tenure. I believe even the most optimistic among us would be altered and jaded by the situations that police officers see everyday: the horrible ways humans are capable of treating one another. It can't be easy.

But sometimes, the cops get it wrong.

And the problem is, when cops get it wrong, it can have deadly consequences on human life. If they are not held accountable, if *any person* who takes another life is not adequately held accountable, it eats at the core of what it means to be human.

We give our police force weapons, and we give them the power and the responsibility to make split second decisions under pressure. It would be wrong to convict every police officer who must use deadly force of murder or manslaughter; it is an unfortunate aspect of the job they accept.

However, anytime there is a question about whether a police officer's life was in imminent danger at the time he or she fired a weapon or aggressively restrained a suspect and that suspect died of officer-inflicted injuries, a trial, visible to the public, should proceed. 

I will add that *every single time* that a person who is not an on-duty police officer takes a life, regardless of the color of anyone's skin—the victim or the perpetrator, it should be thoroughly questioned and reviewed, and the procedure should be just and equal across the board. Any presumption of guilt or innocence should be completely divorced from skin color.


The Issues:
Race and Beyond

There are literally thousands of stories and sides to this case: a permeation, expectation and acceptance of violence in our society, generational and societal racism, income "inequality" (a modern buzzword and euphemism that fails to get to the root of what it really means to live in poverty), abuse of power, polarization at all levels of what it means to be "American," a broken sense of community. The list goes on. And on. And on.

Was this a case of race? Surely it played a role. Was this only a case of race? Absolutely not. 

The case of Eric Garner is so much more than the case of an "unarmed black man." His life, and his death, deserve to be more than such a narrow definition. His children deserve so much more than that.

To give you an idea of where I stand on the issue, see the title of this post. It's a tweet from my Facebook post broken down by @MadlabPost, a dear blogging friend and woman whom I've never met in person, but a person I admire greatly for her thoughtful, impactful work in film and in the human rights and justice world. See her blog here. She is a power for good in the world.

My Social Media Response

Copied and pasted below are my two Facebook posts, the one on my public page and the one on my private page.


My personal page:

Not even the Garner case goes to trial? With a non-sanctioned choke hold that NYPD said was against protocol? And a video of a gasping man asking to breathe? Oh, New York... Oh, America... 

It's getting harder and harder to look at these situations on an isolated case-by-case basis when so many times juries seem to get it wrong. The more cases that feel unfair, the more cultural history seeps into the next case with emotions already simmering. I'm afraid a nationwide boiling point is not far off. And wouldn't it be heartbreaking if that boiling point results in more violence instead of positive change?

In my mind, the message of what it means to be human and live in a society should be simple. In two words:

*Life matters.*


Life matters. Eric Garner mattered. You matter.

I don't care the shade of your skin, the language you speak or the nation you declare your allegiance to. I don't care about where you fall on any political spectrum, the spiritual or religious beliefs you express, whether you are young or old. I don't care about the money in your bank account or your years of schooling.

I just care that you're here on this earth with me... And if you deeply care about someone and someone deeply cares about you, if you believe in the power of a smile and a warm embrace, if you do your best everyday in your little corner of the world, then I simply adore you.

For goodness sake, it's time to cherish life together. We are all worth so much more than violence and polarization.


So Life Matters...
But Still, There's More

There you have some of it. That's my response to any situation that causes such pain, regardless of any one statistic or demographic: life must matter.
 
That is how I feel. But that's not all. 

And that's not what my column would say. Really, none of this long post would have made it into a column. It's just a peek into the excess swirling in my mind as I narrow my point down to a story. 

So why post it? Because it's a part of the whole dialogue. 

And why not share it in a column? It's obviously far too long, for one thing. And... But... By now, readers should know the facts of the Garner story. And the rest could be too preachy or too cerebral or ... just not adequate to describe the shift I felt, in my bones, in the air yesterday. 

The shift if the air yesterday.

That's the column I would like to tell. That's the column that I will tell.


License to Opine

So, before I write my *considerably shorter* column here at writercize (in a separate post a little bit later because: a/ I can hear a dear friend shout, "keep it short! keep it short!" in my mind and I'm sure I lost him long ago and b/ it's time to get up and move around a bit!), here's your writercize assignment, the most important one I've ever posted: 

Write a column (opinion piece) that gets to the heart of how recent news stories about the justice system's response (or: the politicians' response, the police response, the media response, the public response) to Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin have impacted your world view.

Please do it. Make the time. I hope that whether you post your thoughts as a comment here or in your journal or leave it unwritten in your mind, you consider the question thoughtfully. 

Because if you don't at least think about the implications of yesterday's decision, Eric Garner's life really didn't matter. 

And that just can't be true.

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