By Dr. Joseph Chuman,
Leader of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
The refusal to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing (one wants to say murder) of Eric Garner is shocking, egregious, even incomprehensible. Even more so than the grand jury verdict in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, the failure by the Staten Island grand jury in the Garner case defies common sense. Here we have a video of the killing for all the world to see. The conclusion that no crime was committed thrusts us into an Alice-in-Wonderland reality. How are we to explain this discontinuity?
Since the proceedings of the grand jury are opaque, we can only fall back on conjectures that are contextual. Here are a few:
The legacy of enduring racism
In 2010, New Yorker writer David Remnick authored a magisterial biography of Barack Obama, entitled The Bridge. The title suggested that the ascension of the first African-American to the presidency served symbolically as a bridge from the Civil Rights era to a new age of engagement that would bridge the differences among the races. Remnick’s presumptions seem to have been tragically premature. The failure of the grand juries in the Garner and Brown cases, and the ceaseless litany of killings of black men by white police, seem not so much throwbacks to an earlier era but a continuation of those institutionalized injustices into our own era. We would like to believe that American society was turning a corner with regard to race, but lamentably, racism endures. Recent events are both the symbols and substance of that.
But in another sense they are merely the tip of the iceberg. The phenomenal incarceration rate of black men, overly zealous prosecution of African-American men, disparate sentences for whites and blacks committing the same crime, the presumptions that police have of guilt based on skin color (think racial profiling), all speak to the racist character of the criminal justice system. The lack of equal justice has pervaded and continues to pervade the system as it does American society. The Garner and Brown grand jury findings are not exceptions. They are apiece with it.
But there are causes more distinctive to our times that, in my view, inform recent events and build upon the legacy of racism.
The militarization of the police
Since 9/11 the tenor of American society, politics and policy has changed. National sensibilities have been heightened in the face of terrorism. The changed direction of our foreign policy has been most evident. We have created a department of Homeland Security that we buttress with massive resources. But the terrorist threat that looks outward also has an inward gaze. A preoccupation with foreign terrorism has shaded into a generalized fear of the “terrorist” within our midst. It is the response of a frightened public. Most obvious is the suspicion of the Muslim community. But my presumption is that the mandate “to keep us safe” has spread to inform official attitudes, especially police relations, with regard to people of color.
Terrorism has transformed police in image and practice increasingly into occupying armies and the public it is sworn to serve into a potential threat and enemy. The Pentagon has given its massive arsenal of surplus ordnance and vehicles to local police departments, transforming local communities into potential war zones. Weaponry more appropriate to combat areas and now used to patrol neighborhoods render a militarized demeanor to the police, who should be integrated into the communities they work for. Police too often look the part and enact the role of swat teams engaging in overkill, when lesser approaches would be more appropriate. All this generates an “us and them” mentality between the police and the people they are mandated to professionally protect and serve. Minorities are in the front lines of this militarization.
The polarization of class structure
Our politics has become more polarized and shrill. The need for detailed analysis and nuanced understanding is replaced by sound bites and reduction into sloganeering. But hand-in-hand with a nasty political environment, we have the increased division of American society by class. All wealth is funneled upward to the wealthiest. And the poor grow poorer. The increase in poverty (one in seven Americans now lives below the poverty level) has been accompanied by the stagnation in upward mobility. In other words, if you are born into poverty, the chances now are that you will never climb out of it. This trend affects racial minorities more than others. While many blacks have moved into the middle class since the Great Society programs of the 1960s, many have remained “truly disadvantaged” as the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson long ago noted.
Here’s my point: It is emotionally difficult to kill another human being. In order to do so, one has to mentally dehumanize the other and convince oneself that they are worthy of their fate. In other words, one has to construe his victim as “the other.” It is my contention that the class divisions in American society between those in the middle class (but anxious about falling out of it) and those entrenched in poverty have permitted the latter to be viewed increasingly as “the other,” that is, not one of us. They are increasingly foreign, alien. While in many positive ways the younger generations, under the mantra of tolerance, have broken down racial barriers, the reality of entrenched class divisions have thickened those barriers for others. The poor of the inner cities, especially minorities, given the history of racism, are increasingly viewed as not like us. We become detached from their humanity. Their lives are less valued. When circumstances conspire, as they do in police confrontations, killing them becomes easier.
I have been watching the news in the aftermath of the grand jury verdict in the Eric Garner case. I am upset but not surprised by what I hear. Every pundit representing the police, without exception, strains to justify the killing of this unarmed man, choked to death for selling a few cigarettes. The prevailing reality was that Eric Garner was not violent, had his hands raised, and was unarmed and not threatening. Yes, he may have been “resisting arrest.” (Does one really have to be arrested for selling cigarettes, wouldn’t a ticket and a fine do better?) But I asked myself, since when is selling cigarettes, even illegally, a capital offense? Wasn’t there a better way for the police to handle this?
I have no doubt that policing is a difficult and often dangerous job. But I am also struck (even from my own minor encounters with the police) at how postured, how officious, how pompously authoritarian, how scripted, they are in deploying their professional responsibilities. Police never seem to be able to step out of their authoritarian roles. Display of power, not effective and respectful engagement, is the medium of discourse.
Yes, it is hard. But the essence of being a professional is one’s capacity to be flexible, to assess each situation separately, and act accordingly. Yet, the unbending inability of the police to let go of their authoritarian posture at all costs, I contend, is inherently disrespectful and therefore generates resentment and contempt from the public with whom they interact. They are supposed to be public servants after all.
It is inescapable that in the case of Eric Garner the police could have and should have acted differently. That the grand jury did not reach that conclusion raises deep rooted questions about the kind of society we are. It settles nothing.