Eric Garner and Michael Brown had much in common, not the least of which was this: On the last day of their lives, they made bad decisions. Epically bad decisions.
Each broke the law – petty offenses, to be sure, but sufficient to attract the attention of the police.
And then – tragically, stupidly, fatally, inexplicably – each fought the law.
The law won, of course, as it almost always does.
This was underscored yet again when a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict any of the arresting officers in the death in police custody of Garner last July.
Just as a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot a violently resisting Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Mo., in August.
Demagoguery rises to an art form in such cases – because, again, the police generally win. (Though not always, as a moment’s reflection before the Police Memorial in lower Manhattan will underscore.) And because those who advocate for cop-fighters are so often such accomplished beguilers.
They cast these tragedies as, if not outright murder, then invincible evidence of an enduringly racist society.
No such thing, as a matter of fact. Virtually always, these cases represent sad, low-impact collisions of cops and criminals – routine in every respect except for an outlier conclusion.
The Garner case is textbook.
Eric Garner was a career petty criminal who’d experienced dozens of arrests, but had learned nothing from them. He was on the street July 17, selling untaxed cigarettes one at a time – which, as inconsequential as it seems, happens to be a crime.
Yet another arrest was under way when, suddenly, Garner balked. “This ends here,” he shouted – as it turned out, tragically prophetic words – as he began struggling with the arresting officer.
Again, this was a bad decision. Garner suffered from a range of medical ailments – advanced diabetes, plus heart disease and asthma so severe that either malady might have killed him, it was said at the time.
Still, he fought – and at one point during the struggle, a cop wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck.
That image was captured on bystander video and later presented as irrefutable evidence of an “illegal” chokehold and, therefore, grounds for a criminal indictment against the cop.
That charge fails, and here’s why.
First, while “chokeholds” are banned by NYPD regulation, they’re not illegal under state law when used by a cop during a lawful arrest. So much for criminal charges, given that nobody seriously disputes the legitimacy of the arrest.
Second, and this speaks to the ubiquitous allegation that cops are treated “differently” than ordinary citizens in deadly-force cases: Indeed they are – and it is the law itself that confers the privilege.
The law gives cops the benefit of every reasonable doubt in the good-faith performance of their duties – and who would really have it any other way?
Cops who need to worry about whether the slightest mishap – a minor misunderstanding that escalates to violence of any sort – might result in criminal charges and a prison term are not cops who are going to put the public’s interests first.
Finally, there is this: There were 228,000 misdemeanor arrests in New York City in 2013, the last year for which there are audited figures, and every one of them had at least the potential to turn into an Eric Garner-like case.
So much for the “out of control” cop trope. So much for the notion that everyday citizens – or even criminals with the presence of mind to keep their hands to themselves – have something to fear from the NYPD.
Keep this in mind as the rhetoric fogs the facts in the hours and days ahead.
For there are many New Yorkers – politicians, activists, trial lawyers, all the usual suspects – who will now seek to profit from a tragedy that wouldn’t have happened had Eric Garner made a different decision.
He was a victim of himself. It’s just that simple.