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We, Too, Give Up

December 4, 2014

Everyone should watch the videos. To a certain extent what you see is in the eye of the beholder. Some people will see a large black man arguing with police. They’ll think that he should have been more compliant. Others will see a man who doesn’t believe he did anything wrong who then is besieged, unfairly, by police.

You can’t make a judgment based on the video alone. What happened before and after the confrontation is relevant. So is some background on policy and procedure in these circumstances.

Here’s our take:

We start with a criticism of the reporting on this incident. The man did not die from a choke hold. Every headline and broadcast says that he did, but that’s not what happened.

This man died after being subdued by four police officers. It was a combination of factors that led to his death. The choke hold was part of it, but an equal or greater factor in the death was the way the other officers pinned him to the ground.

The details are important here. A choke hold, properly administered, cuts off – not air flow—but blood flow to the brain and renders a person unconscious. The person passes out and goes limp, and then the person administering the choke hold, releases the hold. A moment later the individual wakes up in handcuffs with a headache. That’s the way it’s supposed to work based on training that occurs in advanced martial arts, in the military and in law enforcement.

That’s not what happened in this instance.  The officer applying the choke hold wasn’t applying pressure to the carotid artery on the side of the neck. Instead, he appears to have applied the pressure more to the front of the neck which would indeed have impeded air flow, but not cut it off unless he collapsed the man’s windpipe. That did not happen. The windpipe wasn’t collapsed.  Had it been, this man really would have been choked to death.

The fatal sequence was this. Several police officers pressed down on the man in a way that severely compressed his rib cage. This pressure was increased exponentially by the specific way the man fell and the way the cops were positioned on top of him. The man’s own girth worked against him. His excess weight in his mid section plus the weight of the officers spiked his blood pressure and it was too much for his heart and asthmatic lungs. He died in a manner that was similar to victims of crucifixion. A form of suffocation.

This is hardcore stuff for sure, and it leads to one unavoidable question: Why?

More detail. As a cop, you’re constantly making assessments about the level of threat you face: “I’m looking for a violent felon and this person in front of me fits the description. He’s big. He’s dressed like a street thug. He’s got bad intentions written all over him. In addition, I’m confronting him in front of his friends, so he’s not going to want to back down. He could take a swing at me at any second, or he could pull out a weapon.” This is one situation where you’re not going to want to engage unless you have your weapon draw and you have plenty of back up and even then you know it will be very dangerous.

And then you have a situation like this one. This man, Eric Garner, had just helped break up a fight between two other people. Cops at the scene were aware of his role in helping to calm the situation, but they also were aware that he’d been selling untaxed cigarettes and they confronted him about it. They intended to arrest him for that offense. At this point, Garner, who is unarmed, protested. The extended video shows him to be animated, but he does not appear to be violent. He doesn’t strike the officer. He’s not fleeing, either.

But the cops pounced on him. They took him down like he was a gang leader armed with an automatic weapon. Garner reeled and fell in a heap. Police had to hear him pleading “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe…” but they did not relent. In fact, four more officers arrived and they, too, applied pressure to restrain him.

From the police perspective, it was “proper” procedure to subdue someone who was resisting arrest. It was short of more excessive options like tasering, or use of the baton or gun. But the whole incident was an overreaction. What the officers clearly should have done was continue to talk to him and try to calm him down and accept the arrest.

We’ve tried before to defend cops. We’ve tried to explain how difficult a job it is to see people at their worst and to go from confrontation to confrontation all day long. But there’s simply no defending this.

This wasn’t one cop’s bad judgment. It was four or more cops’ bad judgment. No they didn’t intend to kill the man. They didn’t think they were applying deadly force, but the way they handled it was wrong.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Kanu permalink
    December 8, 2014 7:28 AM

    The entire issue of “resisting arrest” is a red herring and one which even this article falls for.

    Let’s go back to the base. First of all if the guy broke up a fight i.e. helping keep the peace, why was police “rewarding” him with harassment?

    Second, there is no suggestion that he was selling cigarettes at the time of the incident. So how did any of this came up? Other than that apparently police knew him from before and felt he was worth bothering?

    Third, even if the police felt he had sold cigarettes (a non-violent, financial matter) why is this an offence that requires immediate arrest? That’s a ludicrous idea in a society that is overflowing in violent incidents that the police supposedly do not have capacity to respond to.

    Could they not have simply sent a summons to his home? They knew him very well, according to their own account…

    The entire incident was a classic case of police inflaming a non-aggressive situation, for no good reason, other than to demonstrate their 100% power of brutality over non just Eric Garner but the local people there. In their calculus even a minor issue MUST be hit with maximum force.

    Never mind how many serious crimes were being committed around NYC during the time of this incident, a small time cigarette seller – who clearly was a peacemaker himself – MUST be brutally corralled in the most public and violent way possible?

    This is the fundamental problem here – police completely out of control and acting like overseers on a plantation.

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