Eric Garner proves body cameras won't save black men

Who are you going to believe: me or your lying eyes?

A Staten Island, New York, grand jury has decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July 17 chokehold death of Eric Garner. Pantaleo choked Garner while arresting the man for selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Certainly nothing to lose your life over.

But what should make you shake your head is the fact that there was a video of the whole incident, available online for everyone to see. On multiple occasions, Garner screamed “I can’t breathe!” until his body became motionless. It was like a real-life version of the scene from the epic Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing, when Radio Raheem is killed from a police chokehold.

“There is no justice system,” said Ben Garner, the father of Eric Garner. “Whites can kill blacks, but not the other way around.”

“Who can control the Police Department? We had a damn video tape.”

This latest grand jury decision comes a little more than a week after the now infamous grand jury decision out of Ferguson, Missouri. That grand jury declined to hand down an indictment against now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. What we learned in the Wilson case is that a prosecutor who really doesn’t want to indict someone can use a grand jury to do his or her dirty work. Apparently, a corrupt prosecutor with too much coziness with cops might even use the grand jury process as a mini-trial — that is, putting the deceased victim on trial and pronouncing the offending officer not guilty.

But what we have learned from the killing of Eric Garner, lest we were unaware, is you can go to the video tape, but it still might not matter. A man was killed by a police chokehold, and chokeholds are illegal. And he is dead on the pavement over a 75 cent cigarette. Don’t you think that is something a judge and jury should take a look at in a courtroom setting?

In the wake of Ferguson, President Obama will provide $263 million to 50,000 police officers with body cameras. In Rialto, California, where the police department introduced body cameras, the use of force dropped 60% in the first year. Not unlike dash cams, perhaps the body cameras teach the police to self-police, so to speak. This is encouraging. On the surface, anything that allows for more transparency and accountability in law enforcement practices is a good thing. So, you might even get some justice now and then — or not.

However, when the video of an alleged crime committed by a cop exists, but we are told that we didn’t really see what we know we just witnessed, there are some fundamentals that we’re missing here. And Eric Garner is not the first example. After all, the LAPD officers were acquitted in the first Rodney King beating trial after the jury viewed the videotape. King was beaten severely, but one officer testified that a forbidden chokehold would have been more effective in subduing King. Former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates even claimed once that black people are more likely to die from a chokehold because their physiology differs from “normal people.”

In September of this year, a grand jury would not indict in the fatal shooting of John Crawford, III. Crawford, 22, was shot by police for holding a pellet rifle for sale in a Beaver Creek, Ohio, Walmart. And it was caught on video.  One can only imagine the legal outcome in the videotaped fatal police shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Body cameras could lose their effectiveness when the decision makers in the criminal justice system lack a racial justice lens, and they interpret what they see based on their racial prejudice. If a chokehold is permissible because black people are criminals, beasts and savages, then producing the videotape of a chokehold might not make a difference to certain individuals.

The first police force in America, the slave patrols, policed the plantation and were authorized by law to kill black people as a means of social control and to protect the slave master and white society from the threat of black uprisings. There were no cameras during slavery, but often there were cameras during the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, when lynch mobs took snapshots of the gruesome spectacle, posing with the mutilated or charred black body as a souvenir. That was black folks’ experience with “justice,” and all of the injustices and indignities we face — stop-and-frisk, wrongful convictions, death row and mass incarceration — flow from this legacy.

The white side of town trusted the police because the police were always there to serve and protect them. Yet, the police viewed itself as an occupying army in black and brown communities. And we were always viewed as criminals whose deaths would be justified and go unpunished.

Meanwhile, cameras will only get you so far when the police are allowed to operate under bad laws. Let us not forget that Eric Garner was arrested for allegedly peddling loose cigarettes. New York is a booming market for taxless, black market cigarettes, in a city where the cigarette prices are the highest in the nation. The police crackdown on loosies is part of the “broken windows” school of policing, a tragic racist philosophy which criminalizes misdemeanors or non-crimes — such as drinking a beer on the sidewalk outside your house — under the assumption that this is a brilliant way to fight serious crime. And people of color have been swept up under the policy, which started under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with arrests for blacks and Latinos going through the roof.

And racially troubled Staten Island — a 78% white conservative Republican stronghold that voted for Mitt Romney, with a Republican borough president and district attorney — is probably not the best place to expect justice for Eric Garner. After all, this is the place where white residents refused to help a black mother as her sons were swept away by Hurricane Sandy. And when Michael Grimm, now the borough’s Tea Party congressman, was involved in a 1999 altercation with a black man in a nightclub, his last words were “all the white people get out of here.”

Unfortunately, black lives like Eric Garner still don’t matter in America, because society has been conditioned for far too long. That’s why the camera didn’t matter to the grand jury, which means we still have much more work to do.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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