Jean Barker

Why justice can’t breathe

2014-12-05 12:08

Jean Barker

When Eric Garner's strangler cop Daniel Pantaleo wasn't even indicted yesterday,  most people's reactions were, understandably, shock and disbelief. Widespread and angry protests continue. Protesters hold signs that read "I can't breathe".

Even John Stewart, who can usually be relied on to joke about absolutely anything on The Daily Show, including the Middle East, gaped at the cameras like a fish out of water last night (before recovering by showing a video of a kitten giving another kitten a massage).

Beyond the pale

The case has everybody freaked out for the very simple reason that its really, really hard to believe that you can strangle someone to death on camera and not be indicted for it in court, in the USA in 2014.

This case lacks all the gray areas of the Martin/Zimmerman case, or even the Brown/Wilson case. There are no conflicting witness testimonies, such as in the Brown/Wilson case. There is zero evidence to suggest that the cops' lives were in danger, and no stand your ground law.

The usual suspects will point out that Garner had a long arrest record, but if you look closely, it's all for stupid stuff like selling untaxed goods - mostly cigarettes. Anyhow, the legal punishment for selling "loosies" is not death – not even in New York, where I've heard it's practically impossible to find anywhere where it's still legal to smoke them.

By contrast Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Garner, has already faced two civil rights lawsuits, one of which was for forcing two innocent suspects to strip naked in public for a search.

How could Pantaleo walk?

This case looked like a slam dunk. There's video evidence taken by three different cell phones of the policeman, assisted by his colleagues, strangling the guy. As he was joked to death, Garner repeatedly gasps: "I can’t breathe".

Add to this that the chokehold used, whether used intentionally or resorted to at a later stage, was made illegal in New York City in 1993 specifically because it had resulted in so many deaths.

To quote: "Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air."

A fun fact: It took a while to get the law passed, because the cops claimed that the problem wasn't with the chokehold, but with black people’s necks. I kid you not.

Then, there's the fact that the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, not an accidental death.

And as if that were all not enough, the police are captured on video, apparently more concerned with hiding the fact that Garner seemed like he was dying, than with attempting to save Garner’s life.  One policeman, in a moment of supreme irony, tells one of the angry amateur videographers to "give him (Garner) some air!". Neither the cops waiting for the ambulance, nor the EMT staff who arrived, attempt resuscitate Garner, though.

So how could this happen?

Well, there's more than one reason, not the least of which is deep-seated, possible partly subconscious racism - a black suspect is three times as likely to be violently abused while in custody or to die in custody as a white one.

Then, there the fact that some police (such as Pantaleo) don't believe what they are doing is wrong at all. Pantaleo said in court that he knew he was on camera when he continued strangling Garner. He considered it just fine.

It also happens because police who abuse their powers know they have a fair shot at getting away with it.

When an accused officer gets to court, the person prosecuting the case is more likely than not to be the District Attorney. This DA is someone the police work with every day, because the DA basically works for the cops, convicting people they bring in.

The DA can't get their job done without police cooperation. They can't afford to make enemies on the police force! They'll call witnesses with conflicting testimonies. They’ll soften the cross. They'll give the accused plenty of airtime. Yes, it really happens like this.  

Dan Donovan who prosecuted the case, had even less interest in winning than most do. Staten Island is a very conservative place, where many are cops, retired cops, or family of cops, reside. Donovan has an exciting political future in the Republican party planned, and he’s not going to let this little mess ruin that, is he?

The bigger problem

But the bigger problem with this case is that it's not a local issue, it’s a national one. It's one item in a long chain of evidence that proves that racism isn't over, and that an encounter with the police can mean death without trial if you’re black and unlucky.

It’s hard to see why a special prosecutor wasn't brought in, to ensure some kind of authenticity for the Grand Jury process. America is famous for its checks and balances. It's what allows Congress to make the country ungovernable for Obama, but has at times prevented political tragedy.

Yet in such a crucial area, when race relations are tenuous, and tensions are at boiling point, the principle was just completely ignored.  The result is a disaster for the image of the police, the majority of whom are doing their best at an already difficult job. It's also a horrible tragedy for all those who will see the system failing them, yet again.

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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