Just a few days ago, I was inspired and hopeful from the protests that broke out after the grand jury’s decision on the killing of Michael Brown. I never thought body cameras would be enough to address the larger problem of police-community relations, but I thought they would be a small step in the right direction.
After hearing the recent decision of the grand jury to not indict in the killing of Eric Garner, whatever inspiration and hope I had left has been replaced with shock and rage.
Plenty of critics have pointed out prior to the grand jury’s decision that President Obama’s body camera initiative was a small step in the right direction, but with the grand jury deciding to not indict the man who killed Eric Garner, it seems more like the body camera initiative is just a monumental waste of money. Why? Because having video evidence of police misconduct is not enough to even get an indictment.
The whole idea behind getting body cameras on police is it would bring an unbiased third person perspective into any interaction between the police and the public. If there were police cameras, the thinking goes, we would be able to pause, rewind, and re-watch interactions between police and the public, thereby creating a direct form of accountability to the police departments that serve our communities. But all anybody needs to do to realize that this is a complete farce is watch the video of Eric Garner’s arrest and murder and then recall the decision of the grand jury.
Forget that the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Forget that Garner had done nothing wrong on the occasion that police stopped him. Forget that it was in fact Eric Garner who had broken up a fight before police arrived on the scene. Forget all of that. You have video evidence of a man raising his hands in surrender, being slammed to the ground by police who used an illegal choke hold that served as the primary cause of death. You have audio of Eric Garner begging to be released because he can not breathe.
And yet a grand jury fails to indict the police officer who clearly is performing this choke hold? What kind of country are we living in?
I understood that the solution to the disconnect between police and communities of color would require a larger discussion and reformation on police militarization and institutionalized racism, but having seen police smile and laugh in the face of people who are deeply mournful and angry at the loss of another innocent black person makes me realize that such conversations and structural changes are in and of themselves bandages of a much larger problem. The system is broken. When the voices of political institutions themselves are surprised and looking for ways for justice to be implemented through alternative means, the system is not working. When priority is given to tourists who gathered to watch a tree light up instead of to the residents of a community who are demanding justice for a family and people that are suffering, the system is not working. And finally, when society at large is more concerned with maintaining the charade of holiday cheer while many families across this country are accommodating one less seat around the table this year, it is painstakingly clear that the democratic, free, and transparent rule of law is nothing more than an orgiastic frenzy of consumerism, corruption, and self-congratulation.
I have often considered myself lucky to live in New York City, to be at what many consider the Center of the World, the heart, if you will. However, I have never been more disgusted with my city than tonight. The side by side displays of mourning and holiday amusement, the misapplication of justice, and the recognition that there are people above the law makes me seriously question New York’s role as a progressive or liberal beacon for the rest of the Northeast, let alone the country. Said in another way, this heart of the world is rotten.
In the days before the grand jury’s decision on the Eric Garner case, Public Advocate Letitia James spoke to media after meeting with community leaders in Staten Island on how to prepare for the decision and potential public reaction. While she specifically said that “Staten Island is not Ferguson”, I think it would be safe to assume that she would apply that sentiment to the rest of the city, which is to say, ‘New York is not Ferguson’. I would agree entirely. New York is not Ferguson; it is worse.
Ferguson had a history of racial tensions between police and minorities. It was easy for many of us in “liberal” New York City to look down upon the circumstances that happened so far away. After all, we have a strongly progressive City Council, our Public Advocate ran on the Working Families party line, and we’re lead by the liberal champion of working New Yorkers himself, Bill de Blasio, whose ascent to the mayor’s office was written through his narrative of ending the “Tale of Two Cities”. And yet, for all of those credentials and accolades, New York City failed to indict a man who was filmed choking a man to death while his hands were up and he begged for the ability to breathe.
It was Glaucon in Plato’s Republic who said “the extreme of injustice is to seem just when one is not.” By that characterization alone, it seems quite clear that New York City is at the center of the extreme of injustice.
At this point, one must wonder what truly can be done to fix our broken system. In truth, no reform, no matter how well-conceived, will result in any changes so long as any class of people is above the fair application of the law. There are many who are desperate to see this issue resolved, even if they do not know exactly what should be done at this moment. It should not be a surprise that people are marching through the streets of New York, blocking traffic and shutting down bridges and tunnels. These actions disrupt everyday life and call attention to these larger issues. As the crowds evade police and go from one landmark to another, one can make a depressing analogy to our current state of affairs. Society as a whole is a disorganized mob wandering from one place to another, hoping to find a solution to the same problem that keeps surrounding it from all angles. Nobody really knows where we’re going, but we’ll try any direction if it means we just might get it right this time.