“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!”


Eric Garner

Credit: Creative Commons/ Gerard Flynn

A grand jury in St. Louis county Missouri, on November 24, 2014, failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed black man, Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.
Now a grand jury has decided not to indict Staten Island police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in the July 17, 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was selling loose cigarettes in violation of New York law.
After my initial outrage and disgust after hearing both these decisions, I am left with so many unanswered questions that I don’t know where to begin, but begin I will.
Darren Wilson Case
There is sufficient reason to doubt Darren Wilson’s assertion that he was in fear for his life in the presence of Michael Brown, Jr., but for the sake of argument, if Wilson was, in fact, in fear for his life, tell us why he felt compelled to aim approximately twenty bullets at Michael Brown, Jr. hitting him six times with two to the head? Why didn’t he aim to slow Brown down, to injure him rather than to kill?
Why did Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis Country prosecutor not recuse himself from the case due to a conflict of interest since his own father, a police officer, was killed by a black man?
Why was the grand jury composed of only three black people compared with nine white people? Yes, I understand that demographically, white people comprise approximately 70 percent  of St. Louis country, and they represent Darren Wilson’s peers, but what about a grand jury composed more equally of Michael Brown, Jr.’s peers? Did his rights to a “jury of his peers” terminate with his killing?
Why does Ferguson, Missouri have a police force that includes only three black officers and the overwhelming majority composed of white officers in a town of 70 percent black residents?
Why did McCulloch decide to announce the grand jury decision not to indict at 8:00 p.m. after dark? What was his intent? And why did the city of Ferguson concentrate police officers and the National Guard primarily downtown rather than also in the neighborhoods to protect black-owned business from vandalism and destruction?
When a young man is killed over box of smokes, where a smoke screen seems to cover the many still unanswered questions, when a grand jury acquitted an officers on charges in secret proceedings, how can healing begin when the heart is ripped from a community? And how can justice be served when so many questions linger?
Daniel Pantaleo Case
In our nation, as we see the decriminalization of marijuana in state after state, as the federal government has increasingly lowered the penalties for accumulating small amounts of pot, why does New York State maintain a law criminalizing the sale of loose cigarettes? Didn’t Eric Garner and others who do so simply conform to a basic tenet of Capitalism by selling legal merchandise at a profit? Take for example the restaurant industry, which buys large quantities of food stuffs, and sells smaller amounts at a profit. Should we pass laws against the food industry as well?
Why did it take a gaggle of officers to confront Eric Garner for simply selling cigarettes? Don’t Staten Island officers have more important work to perform? Was Garner’s so-called “crime” so serious that the force needed to divert such a large segment of its human resources to confront Garner?
How many more times in addition to 11 would it have taken Eric Garner to utter that he couldn’t breathe for Pantaleo to ease his grip on Garner’s neck and chest?
With all the increased calls for police officers to wear body cams while on duty to record their interactions with the public, will juries actually consider what they see on video screens in court rooms? This grand jury had the change to witness the actually events in the Pantaleo case, which was clearly recorded by an eye witness, and still, it refused to indict?
Pantaleo argued in front of the grand jury that he “had not intended” to kill Eric Garner. When will we as a nation understand that the burden of proof in many court cases must rest on the impact of an action and not merely on the intent of the person committing the action?
Since prosecutors work closely with police departments, and they depend on police evidence for details in the vast majority of their cases, does it really make sense for prosecutors to lead efforts in investigating the very officers with whom they count on in their work? Is this system itself not a conflict of interest?
Tiered (Teared) System of Justice

“[African Americans are] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world — a world which yields [them] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.

For DuBois, this “veil” concept can be taken three ways. First, it suggests the literal darker skin of black people, a physical delineation of separation from whiteness. Secondly, the veil suggests white people’s deficiency or inability in seeing African Americans as “true” U.S.-Americans. And lastly, the veil refers to black peoples’ difficulty under a racist system to see themselves apart from how white U.S.-Americans define and characterize them.
The veil hanging over African Americans, though, operates like a one-way mirror. They can easily see outward onto white America, and in this way, they develop a “double consciousness.” Though not in the truest sense “bicultural,” they acquire a realization of “otherness.” For emotional and often physical survival, they must learn how to operate in two societies, one black and one white. White people have no such veil wrapped around them, and the mirror makes it difficult for them to perceive the realities of African Americans.
This relative inability of white people to see through the veil was reflected in a Pew Research Study of 1000 people conducted between August 14-17, 2014. It found profound racial divisions between African American and white people on attitudes surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown Jr.
Among the study’s finding, fully 80 percent of African Americans compared to 39 percent of white people stated that the fatal shooting “raises important issues about race.” Conversely, 47 percent of white people versus 18 percent of African Americans believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves.” In addition, 65 percent of African American and only 33 percent of white people believe the police response went “too far” in the aftermath of the incident.
Blauner wrote earlier of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he refers to a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This echoes the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation).
Can we as a society cut through the vail and begin to know and understand those different from ourselves, to have the ability to walk in the shoes of another, to break down these “us” versus “them” notions that separate?  First, we as white people must dismantle the denial systems that prevent many of us grasping our social privileges and the realities of “race” in U.S.-America.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press); and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

One thought on ““Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!”

  1. This was a good article. I especially liked that you named the offending officers, not only their victims.
    The question you asked were good questions. On the other hand, I think it’s reached the point where more basic questions must be raised — that the entire “justice” system has to be questioned. For instance: 1. Why has our system of “justice” accepted for all these years the built-in conflict of interest of prosectors who seek to prosecute police officers, when they depend on the police to raise evidence they depend upon to use in other cases? 2. Why do the existing laws protect the rights of police to use their judgement when they decide to use lethal force, especially when white police officers are so prone to see black men as ipso facto “threatening”? 3. Why are the police officers’ words accepted so frequently as “the truth,” when they disagree with the words of the defendant?
    Finally in this latter connection, I feel the need to point out that it was only the police officer’s word — not fact — that Mr. Garner was “selling loose cigarettes.” The friend who was with him in the car that day insists that Mr. Garner was sitting in his car with this friend after having bought some food for his children when the police officer accosted him.

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