"I can't breathe!" Police overreach, Eric Garner and the chokehold of racism

Another unarmed man dies after cops take it too far. Inside the chokehold's sordid, deadly history

Published July 22, 2014 7:53PM (EDT)

A memorial for Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, July 21, 2014.                  (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
A memorial for Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, July 21, 2014. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

The streets, social media, and the general public have been outraged over the past few days by the police-induced death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York City, this past Friday. Police stopped Garner, a 43-year-old African-American man, for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner insisted that he was breaking up a fight, a claim that seems to be corroborated by a widely circulated video that captured the incident.

The clip, which is simultaneously disheartening and grisly, shows Garner complaining about being harassed for no reason. Officers swiftly attempt to arrest him while one cop applies what appears to be an unauthorized chokehold and slams Garner’s face into the ground. Garner, who was reported to be 6’3 and 350 lbs., suffered from asthma and can be heard on the clip pleading, “I can't breathe!” Seconds later Garner goes silent and police usher bystanders away from the scene. Garner died shortly thereafter, reportedly from a heart attack that was caused by the incident, but the official cause of death is to be determined.

Garner’s death has already prompted several articles and segments in the media, many of which superficially engage the issues of racism and police violence. Of particular concern here are the issues of history, surveillance and some of potential defenses that will be offered by the police—all of which support the undeniable, four-century chokehold that racism has had on non-whites.

Some of these commentaries capture the typical anger and indignation that comes with incidents like this. Other reports, mainly mainstream media, seem surprised by the idea that police brutality actually happens and/or cover the story to the extent that it is profitably scandalous. Both of these dispositions are a byproduct of the killing being caught on camera. One wonders what reporting would look like without the footage.

Others discuss susceptibility to police violence as what Franz Fanon might call a “fact of blackness.” One black editor rightfully acknowledges that the “Black Person Is Abused by Police” story is a perpetual news item and writes “if one of my contributors submits a piece on the phenomenon of unarmed black dudes getting shot by the cops a little past deadline, I just tell them to wait a few weeks and we’ll be able to run it again when the next black kid gets killed with a few of the details changed.”

But it is important to put this in historical perspective. Black and brown bodies have always been subjected to heightened police violence. (For a deeper history, read Edward Escobar or Leonard Moore's work). Police aggression is not new. Neither has the use of police fists, batons and guns. But police chokeholds have a unique, racialized history in New York City and nationally.

Twenty years ago, an eerily similar killing rocked New York City. Anthony Baez, a 29-year-old Bronx man with chronic asthma died after being placed in a chokehold by a NYPD officer. What precipitated the chokehold? An errantly thrown football that hit two police cars. Officer Francis Livoti beat his negligent homicide case and received a 7.5 year sentence after the Feds stepped in an charged him with violating Baez's civil rights.

In Los Angeles, law enforcement’s use of chokeholds was so normalized that the issue came up before the Supreme Court. Between 1975 and 1983 at least 16 people died from the police use of chokeholds, 12 of whom where black.  LAPD police chief Darryl Gates caught heat after he slipped up and stated “It seems to me that we may be finding that in some blacks when it [the chokehold] is applied, the veins or the arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.”

In 1983, Adolph Lyons, a black Angeleno, attempted to get the Supreme Court to order an injunction on the LAPD's use of the move. Lyons was stopped by police for a traffic violation, offered no resistance and was placed in a chokehold. He lost consciousness, and when he woke up “he was lying face down on the ground, choking, gasping for air, and spitting up blood and dirt." After urinating and defecating himself, Lyons was subsequently given a traffic citation by officers and released. Although the chokehold was an official policy of the LAPD, the Court gave Lyons the Mutumbo and ruled against him. The Court argued that Lyons could not prevail because he could not show that he would be subject to the chokehold again. (If this doesn’t make sense to you don’t worry, that’s what happened with a lot of the race and criminal cases heard by the Rehnquist-led SCOTUS during this time.)

I could go on and on about the historical links between cities, chokeholds and people. But the death of Eric Garner also offers insights into the importance and multifaceted nature of police surveillance. Besides the absurdity of heavily policing such a low-level violation, the first problem is who the police decide to focus their attention on. In Garner’s case, the police argued that he had been accused of selling loose cigarettes in the past. This history, coupled with suspicions that he sold loosies that fateful day, justified apprehending him.

This approach appears logical but is operates discriminately. When law enforcement focuses its efforts on a particular neighborhood or group of people, it yields overrepresentations. It also creates animosities on both sides and leads to violent outcomes. This could be because of minorities’ sense of being aggrieved and racially targeted and/or police officers’ almost exclusive contact with these groups, which can prejudicially influence their assumptions about criminality and danger. Both seemed to be the case for Garner.

On this point of targeted surveillance, let's be real for a second. Anyone who has visited a college campus knows that police could easily go to either the most populated dorm or fraternity/sorority house and find an assortment of drugs. I’ve definitely seen more people with speckles of powder in their nose in my beloved Berkeley than I have in my beloved South Bronx. Researchers have ably shown that there is simply no war on drugs against white college kids. Banks can similarly launder billions of dollars in drug money and evade criminal consequences.

The Garner tragedy also says something about surveillance in the digital age. To be sure, Randy Orta, the brave bystander who recorded the police choking of Garner, is lucky he or his mom didn't get put in a chokehold, because that’s what happened in St. Petersburg, Florida, when a bystander tried to record the police. Many people believe that cellphone cameras are the great equalizer and can help monitor police abuses. The recent Supreme Court ruling in June, which widened privacy rights in regards to cell phone, would support this belief. But history, mainly the Rodney King beating, suggests that police can occasionally pummel people on camera with impunity.

Speaking of impunity, the initial coverage of this death may instructively point us to what to expect in follow-up stories over the course of the next several weeks. In one of the ABC videos aired immediately after the story broke, the caption read “Caught on Camera -- NYPD Chokehold Investigation -- 400 Pound Suspect: I Can't Breathe.” Look out for lots of invocations of Garner’s height and weight — which cues the stereotype of the “big black buck” or threatening black man. Police are already saying that Garner  “took a fighting stance,” a claim that is dubious in light of the video footage and coincides with scholars’ claims that police routinely lie.

For these cops and for much of the general population (people of color included), being big, black and standing upright is a fighting stance. There’s always an obsession with black folks’ size. This came up with Rodney King; in fact, if you wiki or google him, you will quickly learn about his height. When a woman of color is the victim of police violence, rarely is the height and weight of the offending officer mentioned, despite the fact the latter is almost always bigger. But that’s how it is.

On that note, anticipate a smear campaign. Many of the reports often refer to Garner’s criminal record to avoid the reality that police used an unauthorized chokehold on a man and he died as a result. Less common in these stories is the fact that one of the officers has a history of complaints, one of which caused the city to cough up $30,000. But that’s how victim blaming works.

Don’t forget to watch out for some causality arguments. In the same ways that Garner’s weight may come up to suggest imminent threat, it might also be used as the cause of his death. Essentially, the argument might be that it was Garner’s resistance that caused his death and not the chokehold. This is the same move that was pulled when Anthony Baez was choked 20 years ago. At his trial, the offending officer argued that Baez “overexerted” himself; this extra effort, coupled with his chronic asthma was the cause of death and not a chokehold. In Garner’s case, you will hear a lot about his health conditions (asthma, diabetes, sleep apnea). The long lapse of time between his attack and when he was given medical attention will be used more to mitigate as opposed to outrage. Finally, the Medical Examiner's Office’s recent determination that there was no damage to his windpipe will be one of the many trump cards used to exculpate the officers.

The typical law-and-order critic might say “he shouldn’t have resisted arrest.” If one is charged with assault or a serious crime, in addition to resisting arrest, that seems more plausible. One should be suspicious of a resisting-arrest charge, especially when it is the most serious charge. Those instances are often about enforcing power. Peter Moskos, a sociologist who became a cop for 20 months to study police, talks about this in his book. He calls them “just because” charges, which often include nebulously hard-to-refute things like “loitering” or “disorderly conduct.” Moskos argues that these allegations are often about asserting power, which seems to be the case here. A black man complained about being harassed and said “every time you see me you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it; it stops today.” The police were not okay with a black person asserting his own autonomy like that and attacked.

The painful part about the Garner video and statement is that it did stop that day for him. The equally sad part is that police violence against racial minorities may never stop. Racism has been an indelible feature of American society and police-minority relations since slavery. Indeed, police arms, chains and ropes are not new to the necks of black men, as well as black women and Latino/as. The killing of Eric Garner not only symbolizes the tight hold racism has on our society and individual psyches, but is also a reminder of how normalized violence against non-white bodies is in the media and across racial/ethnic groups has become.

By Shaun Ossei-Owusu

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