Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trying to breathe in Ferguson, New York

I CAN’T BREATHE.” If you’re the one using this statement of pulmonary distress, you’re a party to sudden, existential fear. If you’re in the company of someone saying those words, you are, or should be, a captive of nothing less than your own humanity. What’s wrong? What can I do? Do you have an inhaler? How can I help you?

A Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday exempted one monster of a police officer from this basic clause of the social contract, deciding on Wednesday that Eric Garner had no rights to physical relief that a cop is bound to respect — and by extension, that African Americans in the city of New York have no rights that the New York City Police Department is bound to respect.

The grand jury decided there was “no true bill” in the case of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner, 43, a Staten Island resident and father of six children, with an unauthorized choke hold on July 17 in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, as recorded in a cell-phone video from start to finish.

In the desperate moments before he died, Garner told the officers “I can’t breathe.” Told them 11 times.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

The medical examiner's office determined that the cause of Garner's death was "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police," has said. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide.

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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York told us what was obvious. “The decision not to indict ... is a miscarriage of justice, it’s an outrage, it’s a disgrace, it’s a blow to our democracy, and it should shock the conscience of every single American who cares about justice and fair play.” Rev. Al Sharpton said “we are dealing with a national crisis ... This is not an illusion, this is a reality that America has got to come to terms with.”

Their indignation was no partisan exercise. They’re Democrats, but condemnations of the grand jury’s action came from across the ideological spectrum. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a longtime fixture on Fox News and a reliable water carrier for the conservative agenda, called Garner’s death “clearly a case [of] criminally negligent homicide.”

He was joined by Fox News syndicated columnist and contributor Charles Krauthammer, who called the grand jury’s decision “totally incomprehensible.”

Over at Red State, Leon H. Wolf called the decision “really and truly baffling to me, and infuriating besides. I understand the vast majority of cops are good at their jobs and conscientious about protecting the civil rights of citizens. But there are without a doubt bad cops who make bad decisions and when they do so from a position of authority the damage they can do is exponentially worse.”

The bipartisan disgust at the grand jury’s abdication of moral responsibility, and the growing furor among protesters across the country (already inflamed over the Ferguson grand jury’s decision a week before) suggests, like nothing else could, that the United States has hit the tipping point, finally reaching the high-water mark after which nothing stays the same. Nothing.

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THE long unwillingness to pursue indictments in such egregious cases of police misconduct points to many things in our society, first among them a willingness to turn the blind eye to such injustices, and an implicit acceptance of such state-sanctioned murders as so much collateral damage — the uncivilized “price we pay” for living in a presumably civilized society.

But the refusal to hold police accountable when they should be also stems from a simple but rarely-explored fact: No one wants to be the one to do it.

The longstanding line against indicting police officers for such actions is the result of a reluctance on the part of prosecutors and the grand juries that work on their behalf to be the one to bring an indictment against such officers. There’s an unspoken fear that, if such an indictment comes, a wave of others will follow. No city or state wants the distinction of making that kind of history. They’d rather not take the chance. To one degree or another, that cowardly, cynical calculus lies behind the exoneration of every criminal wearing a badge in this country.

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It’s also entirely possible that local grand juries may be making their decisions on indictment of criminal cops in part with the expectation that the federal government will jump in with a federal review of the cases in question — thereby freeing them to make findings that dovetail with past practice, secure in having “done right” by the police and in knowing that the burden of indicting criminal cops will be something they don’t ever have to deal with.

Add to that a bedrock sense among police officers and agencies of their being the last redoubt of society, the “thin blue line” between order and anarchy, and it’s easy to see how such decisions as that of the Michael Brown case, the Eric Garner case and others aren’t so much possible or likely as they are inevitable.

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MARQ Claxton of Black Law Enforcement Alliance made it plain Wednesday night on MSNBC: “Within the police subculture, there are vows in this fraternity, and these strong bonds that supersede even the vows they’ve taken to hold their respective positions in their agencies.

“It becomes a matter of ‘we’re all in this together, hell or high water, regardless of the circumstances.’ ... They put on a backburner the vows they took to uphold the Constitution, state laws and their departmental regulations.”

That thinking of “the thin blue line” has antecedents in popular culture that reinforce the normality of a segregationist police culture. Films like “Fort Apache, the Bronx” and the novels of Joseph Wambaugh fortify the sense of police as lone Defenders of the Faith in the midst of foreign, enemy territory. It’s this persistent, almost romantic view of police as manning the ramparts against the unwashed hordes that also has a role in the situations unfolding in real life across America today.

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Whatever the reason for such criminal actions, and the equally criminal myopia by the prosecutors and grand juries supporting those actions, there’s no going back. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a federal investigation into Garner’s death, and Attorney General Eric Holder obliged him almost immediately.

“Now that the local investigation has concluded, I am here to announce that the Justice Department will proceed with a federal civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner’s death,” Holder said in Washington. “Those who have protested peacefully across our great nation following the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson have made that clear.”

This is the moment — it damn well better be — when the weaponization of the African American male by the nation’s police forces is confronted and called into question in a way that won’t be swept aside in the 24-hour news cycle’s nonstop hunt for “fresh news.”

This is the moment the United States steps into a future, kicking and screaming as usual, that it has been avoiding for generations. Eric Garner’s final lament on this earth is our own. This is the breaking news we've been ignoring forever. Until this is addressed, until law enforcement learns from this teachable moment ... we can’t breathe, either.

Image credits: Eric Garner attack: Ramsey Orta. Pantaleo: New York Daily News/Getty Images. Napolitano: via RedState logo: © 2014 Town Hall Media. Fort Apache, The Bronx poster: 20th Century Fox/Time-Life Films.

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