The Importance of Eric Garner's Other Last Words

July 25th 2015

Emma Bracy

Black lives matter, white privilege, Ferguson, "I can’t breathe," Ta-Nehisi Coates—the past year’s buzzwords are evidence that, contrary to what many thought after President Barack Obama was elected, we do not live in a post-racial America. But for a long time a lot of people probably did believe we were in a post-racial society, because for a long time we didn’t talk about race. Now we do. We experienced a shift in focus after Eric Garner died at the hands of the NYPD one year ago. The incident attracted national attention and helped make race a prominent feature of popular discourse in our country. Probably, because it was all caught on video.

The video is what makes Eric Garner so hard to ignore.

In the video he says “I can’t breathe” 11 times. I know that because I watched the video, and I counted each time I heard the phrase on my fingers. And then I watched it again to make sure I counted right the first time.

That I could do that—watch, re-watch—is very special. It’s an example of how that video changed everything. Because that video exists, I was able to closely scrutinize a situation that would have otherwise been another sad story of another Black man killed in the streets. I was able to, as a reasonable and educated human being, come to the conclusion that, no, Eric Garner shouldn’t have died, but that that he did, says something about the United States.

Yes, that video changed everything. It has helped the nation become increasingly aware of what people of color have known for a long time. It helped air some of America’s dirty little secrets. Because of that video, last Friday was not just the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, but the anniversary of the United States’ shift in focus. We’ve been “talking about race” for a year.

I know some people think talking doesn’t do much. "Talk is cheap" is a popular mantra, and yes, actions often speak louder than words. But the relationship between a national conversation and social change can be mutually constitutive. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that.

I just wonder if, while having this conversation, we’ve been talking about the right things.

Watch the video again and listen closely. “I can’t breathe,” isn't the only phrase we should be paying attention to.

“Every time you see me, you want to harass me, you want to stop me. [...] I’m minding my business, officer," Garner can be heard saying. "I’m minding my business. Please, just leave me alone.”

His words are honest, simple, and telling. Buried in them are years of policing strategies that disproportionately target people of color and minority communities.

Eric Garner's words reflect "broken windows" policing. Leaning on a metaphor of deterioration—a broken window can quickly mean the whole building is kaput—this approach says that no offense is too minor for an officer of the law to pursue. The belief is that cracking down on petty offenses will discourage more serious ones later. Broken windows hits hard on low level crime, and it is essentially a preemptive crime prevention strategy.

Unfortunately—as many, including the New York Times' Charles M. Bow, argue—broken windows policing doesn’t really work to reduce violent crime. The reality, then, is that instead of discouraging crime, broken windows encourages police officers to concentrate on economically disadvantaged areas, bulk up police presence in minority neighborhoods, and, knowingly or not, target people of color.

The broken windows model also suggests that anyone could be a potential miscreant, which prompts police to conflate standing on a corner with criminality. In turn, officers start looking to cultural deviance (like panhandling, or performing on the subway) as an indicator of something worse to come, and aim to stop whatever that may be in its tracks. This leads to policing social behavior instead of just crime—something we’ve seen an example of recently with the Sandra Bland case.

The abuses born out of broken windows policing—racial profiling, arbitrary and unnecessary harassment, state sanctioned civil rights violations-- can be hard for people who don’t experience them to believe in, or understand. Who doesn’t experience these abuses? Typically, people in wealthier, whiter communities.

I wrote about Eric Garner last week as well. The piece received a lot of comments. I spent an evening reading through them, and was astonished at all those essentially blaming Garner for his own death—“shouldn’t break the rules if you’re not willing to comply when the cops come,” “he asked for it”—that sort of thing. What I don’t think those commenters understand, is how the tactics of broken windows policing effectively transform people like Eric Garner into suspicious looking characters. Whether or not he was actually breaking the law has little to do with why he was approached by the police, and nothing to do with the conversation we need to be having. But of course, those commenters have probably never experienced living in a community where the police presence feels more menacing than protective. Those commenters must not often get treated like they’re inherently dangerous or untrustworthy or otherwise bad. Whoever feels Eric Garner is to blame for his own death must not fully understand what it is to live as an “other” in American society.

But why? Well, policies like broken windows and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) stop-and-frisk aren’t meant to target everybody. They’re meant to target crime. What we must realize, though, is that "targeting crime" is aspirational, and the reality is something more like racial bias than effective policing. The sensitivity and discretion required when controversial strategies like these are employed, for whatever reasons (at best, poor training, and at worse, something much harder to reverse than that) simply aren’t there. This means that some people are effectively made to feel “othered,” and some are not.

There is data to back this up. From 2002 to 2011, almost 90 percent of the people stopped-and-frisked were black and Latino. For the critics who say, “well then, they shouldn’t commit more crime,” they don’t. Almost 88 percent of people stopped in that same period of time were completely innocent. Cops are only supposed to stop-and-frisk when they see suspicious activity. Looking at the numbers, “suspicious” appears to mean non-white.

While the frequency of stop-and-frisk has declined in recent years, broken windows policing is going strong. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, first initiated the policy as police commissioner in 1994, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R). Bratton is New York’s top cop again under Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). He’s just as much a fan of broken windows now as he was 30 years ago. He insists neither the strategy itself nor the NYPD is racist, but does admit that “more minorities are impacted by enforcement.

Maybe Bratton, like many of us, didn’t give all of Garner’s last words a close listen. But that’s okay, because the video exists. We can go back and watch it again, and that has the potential to change everything.