DESCENT TO A LOWER HELL
©Wendell Griffen, 2014
The December 3, 2014 announcement that a New York grand jury decided there is no reasonable cause to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo of the New York Police Department with a crime in causing the death of Eric Garner, a 43 year old unarmed black man, by using a banned chokehold on July 17 is the latest but probably not the last low point in a plummeting drop in trust between communities of color and law enforcement throughout the United States. This decision comes barely a week after a St. Louis County, Missouri decided there is no reasonable cause to charge Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, with killing unarmed eighteen-year-old and black Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr. was shot to death. Eric Garner was choked to death. Both deaths occurred in broad daylight. Both deaths were observed. Reliable observers swore Brown had his hands up when Darren Wilson shot him to death, but the Missouri grand jury didn’t think that was reasonably reliable information to charge Wilson with a crime.
But Eric Garner’s death was documented by a cell phone video. The world can see Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold on Garner, applied while Garner was facing away from Pantaleo. The world can see officers tackle the choking Garner to the ground. The world can hear Garner’s gasps, “I can’t breathe.” The world can watch as people who are sworn to protect and defend life killed an unarmed husband and father.
Perhaps this will dispel the idea that requiring police to wear body cameras will help reduce abusive and homicidal police conduct, but that is doubtful. Racism blinds people from truth they choose to disbelieve. That was made clear when jurors in Simi Valley, California acquitted police of criminal charges in the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King.
After the New York grand jury announced he wouldn’t be indicted Daniel Pantaleo issued a statement that he and his family include the Garner family “in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.” Garner’s widow rejected his condolences and said, “The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling for breath.” Good for her.
Unarmed Michael Brown, Jr. was shot to death after he allegedly robbed a convenience store of a handful of tobacco products. Eric Garner, unarmed, was choked to death after he was allegedly selling unpackaged cigarettes called “loosies.” Their killers, white police officers, have not been charged with committing crimes. Meanwhile Clive Bundy, a white Nevada cattle rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal land for years in defiance of federal court orders, has not been arrested for leading an armed assault on federal officers earlier this year.
In a dissenting opinion in Chon Johnson v. State, 70 Ark. App. 343 (2000) while a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals I wrote the following statement.
“…[O]nly the most morally and socially unobservant or insensitive among us can deny the tremendous racial disparity in the way the police deal with people of color, and especially black and brown men. The police do not customarily stop white people for walking away from them. The police do not customarily deem white people as criminal suspects when they walk. But the presence of a black person is commonly used by the police as a basis for performing what they deem an “investigatory stop.” A black person subjected to that exercise has no recourse when approached. He cannot decline to talk with the police. If he talks with the police he consents to being investigated as a criminal even absent reasonable suspicion. If he tries to walk away from the police … he risks being charged with fleeing and other charges.”
The relationship between people of color and law enforcement has sunk to a new low since I wrote those words. In the past the police often were bystanders as black people were lynched by white mobs. Lynching was never outlawed. Many people of color now view the police as the new agents of lynching. That unpleasant thought is understandable given societal refusal to charge the killers of Michael Brown, Jr. and Eric Garner with committing a crime.
Welcome to the latest level of the hell that passes for racial justice in the United States. I doubt that we’ve hit bottom.