No expressions of sympathy or regret can resurrect Eric Garner, the New York City man killed by police in July. Garner died after an officer placed him in what appears to be a chokehold during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, an offense not usually regarded as a capital crime.
But, at the very least, officer Daniel Pantaleo (or his representatives) showed a spark of decency after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict him for any crime. “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” he said in a statement. “My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”
That’s just one contrast to events in Ferguson, Missouri, where Officer Darren Wilson showed no hint of sympathy for teenager Michael Brown or his family. “I don’t think it’s haunting. It’s always going to be something that happened,” Wilson said in a televised interview.
There were other equally stark contrasts. While Brown’s response to Wilson will always be the subject of dispute, bystanders recorded video of Garner’s arrest and posted it on the Internet, where it went viral. There is no disputing Garner’s tragic last words as Pantaleo’s arm lingers around his neck: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Even Fox News’ bellicose Bill O’Reilly was moved to observe that Garner “didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
But the greatest contrast between the deaths of Garner and Brown may have been in the reactions of elected and civic leaders. Backed by its politicians, Ferguson’s police force responded to criticism of Brown’s death with excuses, equivocation and armored personnel carriers.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio took to the podium to express sympathy for Garner’s loved ones, and equally important, a simple shared humanity. Compassion. Understanding. Empathy. “This is now a national moment of grief, a national moment of pain,” he said. Members of Congress — liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats — joined to criticize the grand jury’s decision.
That matters. All citizens, regardless of color or creed or religion, want to believe that the people who govern them share their fears, their hopes, their aspirations. Or, at the very least, that their leaders can understand their frustrations.
Even now, that’s not always the case in the United States, especially when it comes to law and order. The criminal justice system is one of the last bastions of blatant racism, a tangled net of explicit prejudices and implicit biases, of rank stereotypes and unfair perceptions, a web that ensnares black men disproportionately. Countless studies conducted by experts have borne out the view held by so many black Americans: We do not stand equally before the bar of justice.
Black motorists are subjected to more traffic stops than white drivers. Black men and women are arrested more often for drug offenses, even though we are no more likely to be drug users than whites. And the use of the death penalty tilts against black defendants and devalues black lives: It is more likely to be meted out if the victim is white.
Has there been progress? Of course there has. The nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general, is a black man. But the nation’s criminal justice system started out in a hellishly low place — where officials were complicit in lynchings, where the wealthy extracted unpaid labor from black men by having them arrested, where black crime victims were ignored. De Blasio referred to that unfortunate history: “We’re not dealing with years of racism leading up to it, or decades of racism — we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day.”
For all the striking contrasts between the reactions to the deaths of Brown and Garner, there was one stunning consistency: Grand juries saw no evidence of wrongdoing by a white police officer who killed an unarmed black man. Bear in mind that a New York City medical examiner, citing “compression of his chest and prone position,” ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Still, a Staten Island grand jury found nothing to suggest that Pantaleo committed any criminal offense.
Some things haven’t changed at all.
Photo: Demonstrators in Baltimore protest the Staten Island, NY, grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner chokehold case, on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS)