As if there weren’t enough to keep track of over the past week, New Yorkers were treated to heavy rotation of a shocking video showing what appears to be wanton, naked police brutality. Eric Garner, a 43 year old father and resident of Staten Island, NY, who thought he was a hero for breaking up a fistfight a few minutes earlier, was cornered by NYPD and accused of selling bootleg cigarettes. What happened next is linked on the above video–the police wanted to arrest and handcuff Garner, who refused. The next step was multiple cops working to ‘subdue’ him, including getting him in a chokehold and keeping him in one after he said ‘I can’t breathe’ more than a few times.
The New York Daily News spoke to Ramsey Orta, who shot the video, and another witness:
“They jumped him and they were choking him. He was foaming at the mouth,” Orta told The News. “And that’s it, he was done. The cops were saying, ‘No, he’s OK, he’s OK.” He wasn’t OK.”
He died right there.
Speaking of the New York Daily News–this is a paper that appeals to the city’s ‘lunch-box’ constituency, or what’s left of it. It has always pitched to working-class people who bought it because (unlike the Times) you could unfold it easily and read it on your morning subway commute. Like most other media outlets, the News was nearly always on Former Mayor Bloomberg’s side (a separate issue), and had no tolerance for anyone calling out the police for brutality. But late last week, the Daily News made space on their opinion page for calling out the NYPD for its pattern of racism and its overreaction to minor crime. This of course was the reason for widespread protests against the ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy, which mainly targeted young men of color, something that lots of local media did not notice during the Bloomberg days.
Similar cases in recent memory have fallen through the cracks–there was no great roiling anger over the police shooting of 16 year old Kimani Gray last year, and the case mostly disappeared from the headlines in a few days. There was a similar lack of widespread outrage over the killing of Ramarley Graham, another black teenager who died in a hail of police bullets last August. A police officer was indicted, but there seemed to be profound reluctance on the part of the DA to push the case.
But now there’s Eric Garner, lauded as a ‘gentle giant‘, and many of us who’ve seen the video think it’s worse than the video of the Rodney King beating case that roiled Los Angeles for the better part of two years. Nobody has offered a defense of the officers’ actions in the application of a choke-hold on an individual that was not threatening police, and as I write this, the officer at the center of the case has been relieved of his badge and weapon pending an investigation. By the way, holding someone in a choke-hold is a violation of NYPD policy.
A couple years ago, I was wondering when, if ever, the Occupy Wall Street movement would ever have a police confrontation that was a ‘Bull Connor’ moment. Alabama’s own Bull Connor, a name from the past that many of my generation will remember, became the story during the fight for voting rights in Alabama. Connor gained his notoriety in 1963 during the Civil Rights era, when he had his policemen train firehoses on peaceful demonstrators trying to register to vote. After the hoses were turned off, the attack dogs were released. The scenes (broadcast on most national television networks) were so graphic that they had a major effect on public opinion–JFK was reportedly so outraged by what he saw that he set to work on what would be the Civil Rights Act. Occupy never saw such public outrage at police brutality–the numerous pepper-spray incidents never awakened consciences anywhere, and it would be hard to sway President Obama to outrage since his administration was helping to coordinate a national response to the Occupy movement. Anybody who’s been on the wrong end of an NYPD baton can tell you that the police don’t obey the laws and act with impunity. But this isn’t about rogue cops–the few off-duty police I’ve met are very conscious of the fact that following all the rules leads to a really fat pension, and they won’t take chances on being fired by violating the rules from above. Someone at the top of the NYPD either encouraged brutal behavior or looked the other way too often when made aware of it. And even though this brutality is largely the result of 20 years of the NYPD getting a free hand in their operations under the two preceding mayors, it will fall on Bill De Blasio’s desk. And it will remind people of why there were protests when De Blasio first named Bill Bratton as his Police Commissioner.
In certain ways, NY has gone full circle from the outrage during the 1960’s, when police misconduct against communities of color (combined with poverty and widespread inner-city unemployment) spawned riots during the 1960’s in places like Watts and Detroit. This story will amplify the many voices raised about police brutality throughout the US. Thanks to the rise of the smart phone camera and ubiquitous security cameras, there’s virtually no police misconduct that can go un-observed. And there’s plenty of video and plenty of outrage.