At the start of every New Year, I have to admit I have I strangely morbid thought. It slides right in as I think on my resolutions for the year and how much money I hope to save. Every year I wonder how many black people will become famous for all the wrong reasons. By “wrong reasons” I mean being murdered, explicitly by racists or police. This is a thought I have at the start of EVERY YEAR. I’ve had this thought since I was about fourteen.
This week my question was once again, unfortunately, answered as the story and video breaks of the failed arrest and murder of Mr. Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York. Mr. Garner was killed Thursday as he stood outside a beauty shop. Police have said he was selling “untaxed cigarettes” witnesses have said that Mr. Garner was approached by police after he broke up a fight between two other men. What followed is quite horrifying and please consider this, if you decide to watch this clip:
This is the life of black men. Every black man. Even the most successful of us, have to worry about the possibility of being harassed and possibly killed by police. We worry because you never see it coming. One minute you’re just standing there, then you’re talking to a cop, then a bunch of cops, then you’re slammed up against a wall, then, in the worst cases, you’re dead. I hardly know a black man in New York that hasn’t at least been put against a wall by a cop.
In the ‘hood, “untaxed cigarettes”, I guess means “loosies”, or breaking open a pack to sell single cigarettes. That doesn’t matter. It also does not matter that Mr. Garner had been arrested for selling cigarettes in the past. This is what does matter about this incident:
1. At no point do the police seem to be telling Mr. Garner why they are arresting him.
2. At no point is he advised of his rights.
3. Mr. Garner is a very larger black man.
4. All of the police in the video are white men.
That’s it. Internet comments about people just “listening” to police are invalid. The idea that the police have the right to arrest anyone the find “suspicious” is ridiculous.
This is only just beginning and in the coming months (and years), it will be interesting to see how this case plays out. As a New Yorker and an African American, historically I’ve watched police officers get away with little-to-no punishment in cases like this and I expect this case will be more of the same. However, at least to my knowledge, I don’t know of any case comparable in which we’ve actually seen the video of police murdering a suspect. Where the Rodney King video was a brutal assault with clubs against the noisy environs of a busy road, Eric Garner has several men piling on him; we can clearly hear Mr. Garner pleading for his life. His begging doesn’t stop indifference of these particular cops, it doesn’t save his life.
What you witness in that video is the nightmare of every black family. It is the nightmare of every mixed race family, every interracial romance, any person who deeply, intimately loves a black person and knows they might someday have to face police alone. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard in my discussions with other black men, regarding Mr. Garner is “That brotha forgot his training”.
If you don’t understand what that means, it’s this: As police are taught to deal with civilians, young black men and women are taught how to deal with the police. We learn to keep the tone of our voices extremely pleasant (or even how to sound “white”), how to keep our hands visible, don’t turn and run, and for the love of God, NEVER EVER RESIST ARREST. If they want to cuff you, let ‘em, we’ll get you out. If you have to fight it out in jail for a weekend, it’s still better than being killed by cops. This is the training for black children. I got my official training at about twelve, but I was already pretty savvy having grown up in the projects and riding the subway by myself since age nine (you could do that in NYC back then).
So these are our options. Whether or not Mr. Garner forgot his training is moot. Maybe he didn’t. Looking at the video, he seems like he’s had enough. Maybe no matter how much training we have there’s a breaking point. If you’ve harassed by police as much as Mr. Garner allegedly was, perhaps the training isn’t enough. If it isn’t, how do I train my daughter now?