A grand jury in New York declined Wednesday to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo on criminal charges in the chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in July.
The Associated Press notes that amateur video shot by an onlooker showed Garner refusing to be handcuffed, to which Pantaleo responding by putting Garner in a chokehold. Garner was 6 feet 3 inches, 350 pounds and asthmatic. His last words, barely audible with an officer’s bicep wrapped around his neck, were, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Pantaleo persisted. Garner went into cardiac arrest and died soon afterwards.
Observers across the country responded with outrage. Garner’s death had been clearly ruled a homicide by a city medical examiner in July, and chokeholds have been against New York Police Department policy since 1993. The civil rights division of the Department of Justice is investigating the case.
Protesters are demonstrating across New York (and the country) in the wake of the grand jury decision. Eric Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — are so much more than a plea for air. What Eric Garner’s death reveals America’s police killing problem is worse than you probably imagined, but the FBI doesn’t even keep track the right way. #CrimingWhileWhite brilliantly destroys American law enforcement’s racial double standard. Liberals and conservatives were divided over Ferguson, but they appear united behind Eric Garner.
Video doesn’t always matter. While video evidence is generally considered more reliable than witness testimony, it doesn’t guarantee that justice. As Tanvi Misra wrote at CityLab, video evidence didn’t help the convict Orange County police officers who beat a mentally-ill homeless man to death in 2013. Video evidence didn’t help convict the officer who killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man in Oakland, in 2009.
Consider Rodney King, who was videotaped being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991. A jury ended up acquitting three officers in what’s considered one of the most widely publicized miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. As Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley said following the verdict, “The jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.”
And this is the problem: As Tanvi Misra wrote at CityLab, “Jury decisions rely on a lot more than just the existence of video footage,”notes Misra. “They depend on how that evidence is presented.” It also matters how that evidence is interpreted — and this is where race matters. While most folks will tell you otherwise, White America is generally convinced that Black America commits more crimes than it actually does. A 2012 study in Criminology compared the results of two surveys, which asked people in Florida and throughout the U.S. how responsible they thought black Americans were for various crimes. In every category, respondents overestimated the percentage of crimes that black Americans committed:
This doesn’t mean that every white American is a card-carrying member of the KKK, but fear and anxiety over black lawlessness adds up. According to a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, even when attitudes have only a small impact on actions, individual prejudices can easily turn into racist institutions.
“The big picture is that it doesn’t take much at the level of individual attitudes to make society a little—or a lot—less equal,” explains Nathan Collins in Pacific Standard. “On the statistics side, it’s not even a particularly new argument. But in this case, it makes a big difference. From a nearly non-existent connection between attitudes and actions, institutional racism is born.”
What’s Next? The NYPD’s official Twitter feed, shortly after the verdict, announced that officers will now be equipped with body cameras.
But how, by any stretch of the imagination, can body cameras prevent more Michael Browns, more Eric Garners and more Tamir Rices? They can’t. The problem runs far deeper than anything a simple piece of technology can fix. It runs deeper than the police officers who patrol the streets of American neighborhoods. It’s a cultural problem, a virus that infects the people who occupy the institutions designed to dispense justice.
As Vann Newkirk wrote, “The system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect.”
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of TheArtOfPersptive.co and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo and bred in Washington, DC where he resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.