Believing Our Lying Eyes

We cannot allow Eric Garner's sadly prophetic words, "It stops today," to refer only to his life.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about yesterday's announcement from the Staten Island grand jury is our own surprise at the outcome.

After years of hearing of the killing of unarmed black men by police officers with no accountability and no widespread acknowledgement beyond particular communities that a problem even exists, the news that there would be no criminal liability for the death of a man at the hands of a phalanx of police officers in the course of an "investigation" into the sale of loose cigarettes is just the latest installment in a sad, unending serial about the improper use of force by law enforcement against people of color.

But this time seemed different because of the existence of a videotape that clearly showed the grotesque use of what turned out to be deadly force by a group of police officers the size of which would have been appropriate for the investigation of a serious, deadly offense rather than the most minor of nuisances. Surely, in the face of the shocking video, no grand jury could decline to initiate a criminal proceeding during which all of the facts could be explored and presented in a public proceeding with all of the due process protections which attach to those proceedings.

But those hopes turned out to be unrealistic. When the results were announced, I found myself thinking, improbably, of an old Richard Pryor comedy routine in which a man, caught in bed with his girlfriend by his wife, argues his innocence of clear infidelity by asking, "Who are you going to believe, me? Or your lying eyes?"

This time the clear testimony of what was seen and recorded, along with the truth itself, lost out. We are all left wondering what will have to happen before there is accountability and an honest recognition of the enormous problem we face as a country, as the bitter taste of despair fills our mouths.

Out of the depths of this despair, there comes some hope that there may be the chance of some progress notwithstanding the long history of police violence and discrimination against communities of color. Increasingly, there is some indication of the collective sense of alarm and recognition of the need to discuss that is necessary before there can be any meaningful change. The white mayor of New York City has painfully acknowledged his fear for the safety of his own black son at the hands of his own police department. Protestors of all races have risen up in greater numbers to speak up for accountability and change. And, increasingly, there are discussions of things too long denied by too many: that there are, in fact, two systems of law enforcement in this country.

In a recent interview on WNYC, New York City's public radio station, a Brooklyn man scoffed at the notion that he should fear police while carrying marijuana, observing that they would never stop him because he is white. The twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite documents story after story like this of whites who suffered no criminal consequences after engaging in behavior far worse than selling loose cigarettes. It is past time that we admit what so many have known for too long: That all too often, our justice system simply is not just.

On the videotape of his killing, Mr. Garner is heard explaining that he did nothing wrong and that he was tired of the daily harassment and abuse to which he was subjected. We cannot allow his sadly prophetic next words, "It stops today," to refer only to his life. We owe it to him and to ourselves as a nation of laws to make sure that the day of his death is also the beginning of the end of the unlawful and discriminatory use of force by police all over the county.

Learn more about racial justice and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (10)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

I thought the ACLU recommended against challenging police in the street.

kkg

What the police have done in this case is murder. The EMTs have committed gross malpractice. What, no oxygen?? no monitors??? no phone call to a local hospital?/ Are you kidding??
Look, come to think of it, ANY time a police officer kills an unarmed person, it should trigger a payment to the person's family. In fact Police officers should be forced to carry MALPRACTICE INSURANCE, just like lawyers, doctors, contractors, etc.
Then when bias, or lack f training, or fear or, gang behavior or any other trigger for bad judgment or miss-read of a situation cause the inappropriate use of deadly force-- at least the families will be compensated for the wrongful death of that family member. REGARDLESS OF criminal intent.
Why? because black lives matter. The one who is killed cant bring grandma to the store or teach someone to read or bring a dish to the family get together.

Anonymous

the judge has been accused of being very biased towards cops before, sad to see this case end up in that persons hands

Anonymous

People pls! Come to your senses, Eric Garner, actually broke the law by selling cigarettes, then he resisted arrest when the cops attempted to put him in handcuffs. Had he complied rather than argue, and resist. He would be alive today. That's what the grand jury looked at, there's not enough evidence here to prosecute any of the officers. The ACLU, is not teaching it's followers how to comply when an officer is questioning you, a broken law is a broken law, no matter how severe or small, and it's up to an officers discretion to arrest you or ticket you, or let you off with a warning.

Anonymous

I think the ACLU ought to focus more on the medical response to this person's collapse. Objectively, it's hard to really fault the police with anything before that point, perhaps with a special exception to the chokehold, but even that's not on the level of "immorality" or "police brutality".

Their takedown of the man is to a certain extent a red herring, as no matter what they couldn't have taken this man down without seriously manhandling him, since he was so big. And if they were to take him down with real force, then this would have risked killing him anyway, given his medical condition. The alternative is to let obese or unhealthy people have general immunity from police. I can tell you right now that's not going to work.

What doesn't look quite right to me is the medical response. One might wonder if the responders were not trying as hard as they should or moving as fast as they should. If that's the case, this does rise to the level of immorality and indeed police brutality. But, not having all the facts, there's no way for me to say that there was definitely something wrong with their response. But I can't just give them the benefit of the doubt. And apparently EMS workers were suspended, so maybe there is something going on there.

http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Staten-Island-Chokehold-Arrest-Death-Staten-Island-Eric-Garner-Video-NYPD-267913291.html

As has been the case for a while, I'm not sure that the ACLU is focusing on the issues with the appropriate degree of precision. A lot of their communication, including this blog, feels extremely touchy-feely and emotional. I think they ought to err a little more on the side of focusing on the specific problems.

Anonymous

It would not be "challenging the police on the streets" when we challenge racial profiling by discussing it in our classrooms, in public places, and with our friends and the politicians who are supposed to represent us (not just the elite few rich people and corporations). This is also our freedom of speech at best...

Anonymous

There is a policy of hiring the stupidest candidates that apply to become police officers. You want to stop these stupid things from happening, then stop hiring stupid people with low IQ. Police departments across the country have gone to court to be allowed to hire stupid officers. Stupid officers are what you need to have on hand to become an effective police state. But to have a healthy police force that works to protect the public, you need to have intelligent officers that are well trained and well paid. There is no other solution.

http://www.mintpressnews.com/can-someone-be-too-smart-to-be-a-cop/192106/

http://stillbleedingheart.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/police-officer-candidate-denied-job-due-to-high-iq/

Anonymous

It is obvious that black people are treated far worse and with greater fear and suspicion by people like the police and security staff. This is a terrible, annoying social injustice that needs serious addressing, but needs to be done via massive social action, not by resisting arrest.

Anonymous

Those of you who are defending the police in this matter could not have watched the same video I did. I watched a frustrated but rather calm man be taken down and strangled to death while he pleaded for his life. All for illegal cigarettes! Seriously! And yet that Cliven Bundy guy got a group of armed protesters to keep law enforcement from doing their jobs and NO ONE was taken down!! And he owes the government over a million $! Explain that to me please!

H.D.T.

Mr. Parker identifies an obvious and troubling issue, but he leaves us with little in the way of solutions. I don't pretend to have an answer (there is no silver bullet), but I do think it's time organizations like the ACLU call out Mayor de Blasio for his endorsement of "quality of life policing." The Mayor's acknowledgement that his son could be targeted by the police does nothing to fix what's wrong in NYC or the country. Instead, the Mayor should retire the outdated and racially biased broken windows approach to policing he has thus far embraced. We need organizations like the ACLU to hold his feet to the fire. Sweeping pronouncements about ending the discriminatory use of force by the cops are all well and good, but we need more. Stopping the Mayor's racist approach to law enforcement would be a much-needed, tangible step in the right direction.

Stay Informed