“Get away [garbled] … for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me [garbled] Selling cigarettes? I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please, please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me.”
At that point he was placed in an officially banned choke-hold by a police officer. In his very last words, gasping for air, Eric Garner repeated the following: “I can't breathe.”
How did we as a society arrive at the point where an incident like this can transpire? A man breaks up a fight, gets accused of a spurious crime, and then ends up dead at the hands of a police officer who had repeatedly been accused of misconduct in the past. That this ever happened at all is a tragedy; that it's an incident which most wouldn't find particularly surprising... is a dystopian nightmare.
So how did we arrive at this point? Well, despite a long history of questionable police conduct which should not be forgotten or overlooked, it seems to me that the situation in these regards was changed dramatically by the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. At that point, the “drug war” (which was already in full force) merged with the immediately emergent “war on terror.” And officers who served as foot soldiers in the drug war, now also became domestic soldiers ostensibly fighting the more overt threat of terrorism.
As borders were locked down and the TSA essentially turned airports into military checkpoints, the same mentality which drove those developments crept into local police departments. As the U.S. military was equipped and sent to fight overseas, a similar war footing was put into place domestically. New agencies like the DHS were created and these aggressive and heavily armed modern agencies had an influence upon the civilian police forces which they worked with.
But while it may be somewhat reasonable to expect the hideout of a known terrorist cell to be raided by a heavily armed swat team, it's much less reasonable to expect heavily armed swat teams to bust down the doors of low level criminals who are suspected of relatively minor offenses. And while it may make some sense to thoroughly examine people flying on commercial jets, when that same practice is used in the cities against random citizens walking down the street... it's a more direct and obvious affront to freedom.
When the police arbitrarily demand to see identification and frisk people on the flimsiest of pretenses... that's something that formerly, in the not-so-distant past, was equated to living in Stasi Germany or the Soviet Union. The ability to walk down the street without being randomly accosted by agents of the state was part of what was meant when people used to say that the United States was “a free country.” The fact that the USA didn't have gulags was cited as a positive in comparison to the USSR. But, now, “stop and frisk” is normalized policy in America's largest city and the United States has the largest prison population in the world – both in total numbers and per capita.
After 9/11, a lot of people claimed that the Al Qaeda terrorists hated us (citizens of the United States as a whole) “because of our freedoms.” The idea being that the Islamic fundamentalists wanted to spread their policy of strict Sharia law – dress codes enforced, use of various substances controlled, etc.. But if that's the case, and I only mean this with the slightest degree of hyperbole, then the NYPD is Al Qaeda's greatest ally. It is the NYPD, as a singular entity, which most directly limits the freedom of Americans. If your pants are too baggy or saggy (as is the fashion with inner-city youth) then you will quite possibly draw their attention and be stopped, frisked, and questioned. If you use substances which the law says is verboten, then the NYPD will crack down upon you. If you steal... they may not cut off your hand, but they may very well start a process which will cause you great and lasting hardship – particularly if you were ever caught committing other sins like smoking pot or other drugs. This is before we even start to examine the supposed justice of issuing costly tickets for minor infractions like jaywalking or parking inappropriately.
But when proponents of the NYPD read this... it's unrealistic to expect introspection or calm reflection. Rather, I would expect indignant rage. Instead of engaging in self-examination of their role in what America has become, I would expect deflection and the insistence upon the necessity of strict law and order. Which, again, is precisely what Islamic fundamentalists want.
When Eric Garner was killed after breaking up that fight, he wasn't acting under the auspices of Jihad. And even if he was selling loose cigarettes (which is actually in question), he did not deserve to be accosted in the way he was. He certainly did not deserve to be choked to death. In a more rational society which valued freedom, if we were to accept some token presence of police, this is how I would have expected Eric Garner to be addressed by the police on the fateful day of his death: “These people here are saying you helped to break up a fight. Thank you for that! We need more people like you around. You make my job that much easier.” That would have been a reasonable, rational, and sane response.
Instead, they got in his face for the umpteenth time, leveled some bogus charges at him, ignored his pleas to be left alone, and then choked him to death. And then, to add insult to the fatal injury, a police proponent had t-shirts printed up which said things like “Breathe Easy, Don't Break The Law.”
Does this seem like somber reflection to you? Does this give you the idea of institutional remorse? Of course not. Rather, instead, the NYPD treated Eric Garner like a prisoner at Abu Ghraib and essentially celebrated his death with commemorative t-shirts as if they had just killed Bin Laden. But Eric Garner wasn't a member of Al Qaeda. Eric Garner was just a human being trying to get by. And now... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have all been stripped from him. He was killed by people who hate us because of our freedoms.