A few days ago, on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in Staten Island, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered that the case be dropped. The decision ends a contentious years-long debate within the Justice Department over whether to bring federal civil rights charges against the officer who contained Garner, 43, in a chokehold which ultimately led to his death.
Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” repeated 11 times as captured by witnesses on their cell phones on that hot summer day, July 17, 2014, have since become a rallying cry for activists who continue to demand changes in policing practices including the elimination of the deadly tool of “excessive force” still used by officers from coast to coast.
Garner’s death, reflected in the epitaphs of scores of other Black men and women who have suffered similar fates following encounters with police, has served as the catalyst for the national Black Lives Matter movement. But as journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, writing from a prison cell, asks in his appropriately-titled, brilliant collection of essays which captures the past two decades of police violence and a much longer history of the U.S., “Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?”
Based on the evidence at hand and the transcript documenting America’s past and current treatment of Black bodies, the only possible reply to his query must be “No,” “Never” — or for those more optimistic about the future, “Not Yet.”
For NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the last five years have found him relegated to his desk without his badge or gun, suspended from street duty but employed, nonetheless. And while he may ultimately, after long delay, be fired from the force — a decision supported by both the City mayor and state governor — it won’t bring Garner back to his family and friends or undo the suffering they’ve endured.
While I cannot imagine the pain that Garner’s parents have had to bear, I wonder what justice would look like to them? Is it an impossible dream or is it an attainable goal despite a judicial system rife with inequities, police practices often doled out based on skin color rather than the crime, dominating societal norms and a current political environment which collectively enforce America’s two-edged sword of justice — with Blacks repeatedly getting the raw and brunt end of the deal, and stick, respectively?
In a chapter from his earlier mentioned book, Abu-Jamal posits that police in their dealings with Blacks, may legitimately be described as either “public servants” or “paid predators,” citing the case of Amadou Diallo in support of the latter description.
He writes, “the trial of those charged in the slaughter of Amadou Diallo has ended in the predictable acquittal of his killers — four white cops. When is a killing not a killing? Apparently, when the homicide is perpetrated by police. When police kill, it is an accident, a ‘mistake,’ an ‘oops!’”
To be clear, my personal encounters with law enforcement still lead me to view a policeman more like “Officer Friendly” than a legally-armed assassin targeting Black boys and men. But it would be foolish and dangerously naïve for me to pretend that more than a few uniformed, licensed to kill white men, have little or no regard for those who look like me and wield their power with reckless abandon.
But equally, if not more dangerous, are white, self-appointed community watchmen who believe it is their right and duty to police the streets and protect their own from dangerous elements — those black- or brown-skinned who live among them or who hazard to cross their paths. George Zimmerman, who murdered an innocent and unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, 17, serves as just one of hundreds of recent examples.
And so, I call the role: Trayvon was “walking while Black.” Garner was “hanging out on the corner, perhaps selling loose ‘squares,’ while Black.” Jordan Davis, 17, was “listening to a blaring radio while Black.” Freddie Gray, 25, was “possessing (allegedly) an illegal weapon, a knife, while Black.” Michael Brown, 18, was “running away from police while Black.” For their individual “crimes,” each of them subsequently lost their lives.
Every day, with these and other illustrations of injustice weighing heavily on my heart, I pray for the safety of my only son, Jared, 25, who works and lives in New York City. I pray for his protection so that he will not become another statistic. I claim his safe passage in a nation so sickened by bigotry and fear that for some, the essential need to breathe freely in order to survive now stands on the precipice — a see-saw whose seats are marked “privilege” and “inalienable right.” For my son, for me and for others of our ilk, we fight and scrape for the right to life-sustaining breath throughout the course of life — knowing full well that this right, at least for Blacks, still remains in abeyance.
I want my son to have the right to “breathe,” to have his right to “breathe” protected under the law and to be able to envision a future in which he can “breathe” as easily as anyone else — a perfunctory act which never requires practice in order to perfect. Come to think of it, I seek the same for myself.
“I can’t breathe!” That’s a phrase I hope I’ll never have to repeat.