Eric Garner and The Tipping Point in Race Relations

I grew up believing that the word "racism" was an archaic term that belonged only in history books.

Yeah, I realize how crazy that sounds. I see now that it was silly to believe that.

I understand that anyone who reads this blog post will know from that very first sentence what color my skin is. I am white.*

I know now that only a white person could make it through the first ten or fifteen years of life and still believe that racism was an ugly, distant memory, a relic from the past that only appeared in textbooks and history lessons next to the first two hundred years of American life, from slavery through civil rights.

I know now how ridiculous that notion seems. 

It took time for me to understand.

It took life experience for me to see how my coworkers and clients in our nation's capital were grossly underpaid and overqualified, consistently offered salaries and positions lower than those with lighter skin.

It took candid discussions with friends to understand what it meant to live black*: to have to teach a son to be timid with strangers and the authorities just to stay alive, to expect to be pulled over at night or in a predominantly white neighborhood.

It took getting to know family histories to see that sharecropping, hate crimes and lynching weren't dead memories; they were alive and a real part of the personal history and experience in my friends' parents and grandparents lives. (More recent even than the Holocaust and its survivors whose firsthand stories I heard at least once a year in school assemblies: stories of oppression and genocide that took place far away, outside our borders, filled with stories of American heroism in the name of equality, justice, freedom. "American" qualities.)

It took decades to get it.

But once my eyes and ears were tuned in to the fact that race is still an oppressive factor in life in America, I could clearly see the additional—--almost imperceptible--—layer of both fear and pride in black parents' eyes as they looked to their children's future.

Still, it took Eric Garner to shake me awake. It took Eric Garner to peel away the veil of sixty years of perceived progress and strides toward equality.

Wednesday night—Eric Garner—was my tipping point. I watched the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo with disbelief and tears in my eyes.

I first listened to President Barack Obama and I agreed. This case was about more than race, more than black lives or white lives. It was about American lives and a flawed justice system. It was about law enforcement and making sure every single person in our country is equal. Is valued. The lesson about what had happened had to be more than this outdated concept of "race."

And then I went to Target.

And I realized that once again, I was wrong. The Eric Garner case has everything in the world to do with race.

I was wrong because I had the luxury of being surprised with the grand jury's failure to indict. 

When I walked into Target at eight o'clock on what should have been an average Wednesday night, I felt an energy permeating the air that I have never felt before in my entire life.

I felt defeat. And I felt dejection.

I walked around the store, and I saw men and women in every shade, processing the news of the day. On white* faces, there was surprise, confusion, contemplation, frustration, disappointment. But on every black* face, there was a level of sadness I've never seen. It was a look that told me that Eric Garner's murder (because that's what the coroner called it: homicide)—--with the witness catching it on video and the hands up and the jovial personality—--dug deeper than any wrong conviction or racist remark or attack ever had.

I can only describe the energy I felt that night as the pivotal moment when a person realizes a relationship they'd cared about is over. That second when you go from the drive to argue and be heard by the person you thought you loved to the realization that it's just over. The relationship is not worth the energy or the anger or the frustration or the sadness. It's just plain done.

Anyone who's ever fallen out of love or known when to walk away from a lover knows that moment, that pained look of dried-up hope and abandoned dreams.

It says, quite simply, "I give up."

I'd never seen that look or felt that emptiness from so many people in my life. Not after Columbine, not after 9/11, not even after Sandy Hook—and I say that not to minimize any of those tragedies, but to illustrate just how powerfully diminished the air felt. I think it's because those shocked us all, but this—--a senseless loss of life followed by an institutionally blatant disregard for the weight of what had happened—--was actually expected by a large portion of our population.

I've been obsessing over the right words for days, and I still can't find a way to adequately explain or describe that night.

If I hadn't gone out that night, I probably wouldn't have even seen it. I would have thought Eric Garner was "just" another case of structural racism. By the next day, I noticed that the masks were back on and the desperation was hidden behind a forced strength. But I did go out. And I did see it.

On Wednesday night, while my anger and frustration and sense of injustice were raring to fight, the faces of those who'd anticipated such stark disregard for one unarmed black man's life told me everything I needed to know. It would never be enough.

I realized the protests in New York weren't only peaceful because people were tired of violence and suddenly learned order in chaos. They were peaceful because all the air and all the fight had left the room.

Hands in the air. Race is real.

Every day, I wake up white. Every day, I am perceived as white. Every day, I experience life as white. And every day, that will limit my understanding of what it really means to live in America, because I walk through life presumed innocent.

It's not wrong that I am perceived that way. It's wrong that others are not.

Wednesday night, at Target, I could see that even deeper and more desperate than generational or societal American racism, a racial chasm had been revealed with the Eric Garner case.

This time, it was different. This time, it was day. This time, there was a video. This time, the victim was peaceful. This time, there was absolutely no question. Eric Garner was not supposed to die.

This time, it was clear that no matter what a person does, no matter how much a man strives for peace and cares about his community, there will be a next time.

And how is it possible to explain that? How is it possible to justify that? How is it possible to live with that?

I can't explain it; I can't justify it. Purely by chance and the "luck" of the genetic draw, I am not forced to live with a different set of behavioral expectations related to my every day reality. My children will not face the same scrutiny as the children of my friends and neighbors. I will worry about their health, safety and well-being, but only in the universal motherly sense; my worries will not be heightened simply due to dark coloring.

When I checked out, cold meds and stocking stuffers passing by the rhythmic beep, there was the same small talk.

Her: "Hi. How are you?"

Me: "Fine, and you?"
Her: "Fine. Did you find everything ok?"

Me: "Yes, thanks."

Blah, blah, blah. Lies. Lies from both of us. Eyes were downcast and averted as we feigned a normal conversation.  

She was black. I am white. Most days that wouldn't matter. Most days, we'd hold eye contact. Most days, she would have held the same conversation with the woman in front of me in line, a woman who was also black.

But, this time, you could feel the truth beneath the surface. This time, the cashier and the woman in front of me knew there was really nothing to say. They just looked at each other and sighed, not a word exchanged. 

This time, our small talk was thick with unsaid sentiment.

Her: "Hi. How are you? Actually, I don't even care. Did you see what happened today?"

Me: "Yeah, and I feel pretty sh*tty and scared about it. But I know not as sh*tty or scared as you. How are you? It must suck to try to pretend life is normal and concentrate on scanning items and asking people how they are when the whole world fundamentally changed a couple of hours ago. But I feel you... I feel your fear, your worry, your sadness. And I'm sorry. Really, really sorry. They were wrong. And the thing that sucks is that it's not just Eric Garner. It keeps happening. The stories are different, but the same. Your life, and the life of your family, is harder than mine because you are darker than me. It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair."

Her: "Yeah. It's not fair. And you won't ever understand just how unfair it is."

Me: "You're right. I won't. And for that, I am both grateful and deeply, deeply sorry. I wish it weren't true. Hell, I'll fight with you. But I know now it won't be enough. And that's tearing me apart."

Yes, Eric Garner was the tipping point that revealed the decades of civil rights that I had always thought (perhaps ignorantly, perhaps naively) we'd moved beyond were just a ruse.

And I suppose it shouldn't be all that shocking. After all, Rosa Parks' journey on the bus was only fifty-nine years ago. The older I get, the clearer I recognize that's merely a drop in the bucket of human history. But I really believed we'd learned so much more.

No one will ever know for sure what would have happened if Eric Garner were white, or if Daniel Pantaleo were black. But we all know it'll happen again. And again. And again.



*Note: See my post Thursday re. my reluctance to use the terms "white" or "black" to define a person in the first place (and why I use the term "black" vs. "African-American" in the first place). I don't claim to be color blind, nor would I desire to be color blind. I see our human shades; I do believe bits and pieces of culture are reflected in our skin, but those are just one component of the myriad of elements that make us who we are. 

I always notice a person's eyes and smile, confidence and gait, wit and caring, long before color.

I will never judge a person by the color of his/her skin. I will never think a person is "less than" or "more than" another because of tone. We are different, and we are the same, and we are richer for our diversity.

Whatever shade you are: I think you are beautiful. 


On Thursday, I posted several long, winding thoughts about the Eric Garner case, the idea that all lives matter and the concept that violence is altogether too prevalent in our society, as I whittled down my point. There are so many concepts wrapped up in this one case that it's hard to pick just one.

The tipping point that I refer to above, though, is the stark realization that while discussions about dignity and respect and violence are also important, it's impossible to arrive at those discussions without first addressing the simple concept that Black Lives Do Matter. 

I thought we were so far past that concept that we could move on up the Adapted Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Relations (don't google it; it doesn't exist), but I learned on Wednesday night that we can't. We have to face that seemingly obvious fact first.

Over the past couple of days, I've attempted to complete the writercize assignment I gave you. The task proved to be tougher than I thought, as thousands of thoughts continued to dance in my head. I had more to say. I had different things to say. But I have to let it go and allow those other bits and pieces to be a part of the larger dialogue.

Once again, I challenge you to the same writercize from Thursday:

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.

I welcome your writercize attempts, and I welcome your comments. This is the touchiest subject I've ever written about, and undoubtedly to many, I got some of it—--or all of it—--wrong. 

Please, don't hesitate to share with me what you think. I appreciate different perspectives and am open to listening to and learning about what you have to say.

Disrespectful or spiteful comments will be deleted.


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.