Here we go again. A grand jury, this time in Staten Island, has declined to indict a white police officer for the death of a black man, and protesters are marching against this perceived injustice. Unlike events in Ferguson, MO, the New York protests have been largely peaceful. On the surface, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner look the same–white law enforcement violating the rights of black men. But as with life, things are more complex in these situations than a reflexive reaction would believe.
Some might accuse me of exercising “white privilege” here, and perhaps an objective view requires having distance, but it’s my position that a valid conclusion has to be based on facts and logic and that while societal trends are important in general terms, each case must be treated individually, since people act individually.
With that in mind, we have to consider the evidence of the two cases. There is no video of the Ferguson event, but we do have the testimony presented to the grand jury, and that supports Darren Wilson’s account. In addition, nothing to date has come to light to show that Wilson acted out of racist motives or that he had a history of excessive force. It’s always possible for new facts to emerge that will change the interpretation of the total evidence, but we cannot ignore present data in the belief that the truth is out there somewhere to be found at some unspecified future point.
By contrast, we do have video of the arrest of Eric Garner:
The video of the incident itself starts at 1:04.
I worked for a while in a residential treatment facility for troubled youths and was taught how to restrain someone who is agitated or violent. A chokehold wasn’t allowed. In fact, NYPD officers are specifically barred from using chokeholds. In the video, I see no evidence that Garner posed a threat to the officers or to anyone else. I don’t know if there was a reason to arrest him, but I don’t see any cause to use force in the process. What is more, unlike Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for Garner’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, has a history of excessive force incidents. That doesn’t by itself prove that Pantaleo was wrong this time, but it does show a pattern of behavior that speaks to the nature of the person.
The point in all of this is that if all we do is react without thinking, we jump to invalid conclusions. We lash out at people not responsible for the perceived wrongs, and we champion causes not worthy of our efforts. Michael Brown was a violent criminal. Eric Garner was not. Brown attacked an officer, while Garner simply expressed his frustration with the police. Neither event justifies burning down a city, but protests are warranted over Garner’s death. But rage without reference to facts invariably brings another wrong in response to the first wrong and thereby dims the moral authority of the cause.