Looking over from the African continent, it has not always been easy for many to fully understand the circumstances of Black Americans or even the history of race relations in the United States. After all, many assume America is a country of freedom, laden with opportunities and wealth for all. However, how does one account for the complaints from the Black American community along with the commensurate apparent disparities in opportunities and treatment?
On July 17, 2014, police officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD) approached 43 year old Eric Garner under the suspicion of hawking cigarettes along the road, an act New York City frowns strongly upon because it undermines their deliberately exorbitant taxation policies on discouraged products. After engaging in an argument with Mr. Garner, who pleaded several times with the officers to “leave him alone,” “I’m minding my business officer, I’m minding my business.” “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me.” His pleas were insufficient to the police who were determined to take him down. He was grappled to the ground and suffocated in a banned chokehold; once again he began to plead, this time for his life. “I can’t breathe,” “I can’t breathe,” “I can’t breathe.” The officers ignored his pleas and pushed his head against the concrete, while his life slowly drifted away from him and out of his reach. It was not long before Garner was pronounced dead.
The fallout was immediate. The primary culprits responsible for killing Garner — Daniel Pantaleo and Justin D’Amico were placed on desk duty. While awaiting a grand jury decision on whether to indict the police officer, the city medical examiner came back with a verdict months later — the death was ruled a homicide. On December 13, 2014, the grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death. Protests broke out in New York City and across the United States. Highways were blocked off to traffic and protesters peacefully demonstrated in the streets.
It was especially painful to the Black American community, as this failure to indict came shortly after another failure to indict in the death of Ferguson teenager, Michael Brown. In addition to this, 12 year old Tamir Rice from Ohio was gunned down within two seconds of arrival by police officer Tim Loehmann; like every other kid, Tamir was playing by the park with his toy gun when he was shot. Regardless of whoever is right or wrong, in any of these cases, the Black American community has noted a system that has historically targeted them unfairly, especially black men.
There are a number of issues with the Eric Garner case that immediately come to the forefront in the minds of many. First of all, why was Panteleo’s case not taken to trial despite the fact that the medical examiner had clearly ruled Garner’s death a homicide? The New York Police Department (NYPD) had taken steps in July to retrain the police force against the banned chokehold, which clearly shows that Panteleo’s actions implied error, and the presence of very clear video evidence which shows the police officers killing the man while the cameraman protested the unfair arrest. It is understandable that this was the jury’s decision to make, but who were these individuals? Secondly, why was this officer left on the NYPD payroll despite a history of being sued three times in the past for violating the rights of Black Americans? Despite the race or color of the police officers, or even that of the victim’s, there is no reason why this homicide should not have gone to trial. No one should have to die for hawking petty goods along the street — in the grand scheme of things there are more serious atrocities that occur daily but go unnoticed.
What do these recent incidents mean for black men in America? For parents with young sons, will having the talk have to shift from a discussion about the “birds and the bees” to “how to not get shot”?
One thing is certain. The uprising following the deaths of Garner and Brown prove the power of civil society, for better or worse. There remains some hope that all Americans can leverage what has been positive from the demonstrations to promote an understanding of race relations in the United States. Americans of good ethics, including Black Americans need to be more involved in civil society and continue to highlight and celebrate what is positive. Jury duty should never be seen as a chore, but rather a part of the democratic process wherein homicidal officers with a history of poor policing are brought to justice. Further measures recommended include proper training of the police force, the elimination of the irrational fear of black individuals, civil recourse in the case against Pantaleo, and compensation to the Garner family, even though no amount of money can replace the pain from the unnecessary death of a man who was a husband, father and a son. However at the end of the day, change will have to begin at home. Black businesses, families and communities need to rally their support in building a greater sense of community, unity and support while actively challenging negative stereotypes and perceptions.
Black lives do matter. It is important that these measures are taken sooner rather than later, as the next time could be anytime.
Image: Getty/AP/Reuters/LA Times