Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Eric Garner and Omnipresent Police Power

The Eric Garner case is a reminder that government is force, and more government equals more force.

There are mass protests again about a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of a black man. This time, the protesters might even be right.

It is the second time in a week that this has happened, following the decision by the grand jury in the Ferguson case, but it is interesting to see the different reactions. Commentators and activists on the left assumed in both cases that the white cop was guilty because he was a white cop, regardless of the evidence. Commentators on the right split their decision: most of them agreed with the refusal to indict in Ferguson, but most condemned the refusal to indict in New York. (See The Federalist‘s own Sean Davis, Charles Krauthammer, and many others.) Why the difference? Well, because the facts are different. As I warned, one of the most insidious errors you can make is to turn each case into a symbol of “systemic racism” rather than an individual case to be judged on its own merits.

What did the facts show in the Staten Island case? They don’t show deliberate murder. The video of the police arrest of Eric Garner shows no evidence of malice or specific intent to harm Garner. Rather, it shows a callousness toward his obvious physical distress when the confrontation goes wrong. The killing is less malicious than officious. I mostly agree with Sean Davis, who argues that it was a reckless use of force that caused Garner’s death, which means that there is a good case for prosecuting the policeman responsible on charges of manslaughter.

Despite the damning video that brought the case to national attention, it is not totally cut and dried. The autopsy showed that Garner was already on the run from the grim reaper. The choking action (which may not technically be a “chokehold” but was, er, a hold that choked him) was found to be the primary cause of death, but Garner had major health problems, including asthma. So you could imagine a defense attorney making the case that this just happened to be an unfortunate situation in which a guy resisted arrest and was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive the altercation. There is a conceivable defense that the choking made no difference and Garner would have died anyway just from the stress of resisting arrest. But that’s a defense that ought to be made in court, not pre-emptively endorsed by a grand jury.

That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.

So one side makes its decisions on the basis of race, the other makes it decisions on the basis of evidence. No points for guessing which side has been calling the other “racist” for the last week.

Rather than a lot of posing about who’s racist and who isn’t, I’m more interested in what the solutions are for avoiding cases of excessive use of force.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t what we’re all talking about. An exchange I had on Twitter is pretty typical. When challenged to name a specific reform he wanted to pursue in response to the Ferguson case, he replied “not putting up with s—bag white people like yourself, for one.”

This isn’t about the specifics of the case or any particular kind of reform. It’s about power and control, about some people trying to build up their moral authority by tearing down everybody else’s.

This is earthily expressed, but it pretty much sums up the reaction on the left. This isn’t about the specifics of the case or any particular kind of reform. It’s about power and control, about some people trying to build up their moral authority by tearing down everybody else’s. The big thing I’ve notice from Ferguson is how comfortable folks on the left are becoming at saying that you should shut up because you’re a white man. And that’s not just on Twitter, where people get pumped up by the kind of digital courage that emboldens them to say mean things to distant strangers.

Recently, Pascal-Emanuel Gobry was kind enough to mention a piece I wrote last year about how the Democrats have become so dependent on the support of racial voting blocs that they would need “one Trayvon Martin case after another.” I was referring not to the actual phenomenon of questionable shootings, but to the their exploitation to inflame racial divisions for political advantage. Isn’t that exactly what we’re getting?

But if we want real solutions, we will ask what this case actually tells us.

The thing that strikes me as most important about the Garner case is how stupid the reason was for arresting this guy: he was being busted for selling single, “loose” cigarettes in order to evade heavy taxes on tobacco products. Basically, he was arrested for doing something that, in a previous era, thousands of people would have been doing in New York on any given day: selling goods on the streets of the city without any particular permission. It’s a low-grade form of entrepreneurialism.

But not in the nanny-state New York of today. In a city where everything is taxed and regulated and you can’t put trans-fats in your food or buy a soda that’s too large, it makes perfect sense that they would harass a guy for selling cigarettes on the streets without permission. After all, they’re bad for people. Somebody might die.

This case is a reminder that, as Twitter user Bill Hobbs put it, government is force, and more government equals more force. Government is not a benevolent authority working bloodlessly behind the scenes to ensure seamless social harmony. Government is a guy giving you orders about what you can’t do—with a gun on his hip, handcuffs at the ready, and a muscular arm to wrap around your neck if you resist.

Putting stiff taxes on cigarettes to discourage smoking may sound great, and shouldn’t we do it for the children? But what it means in actual, concrete practice, is this:

Every confrontation between police and citizens has the potential to go wrong and accidentally kill someone. This is actually why I have some sympathy for the police. Their job is to be the instrument of all the laws we pass. So when the law descends from the clouds of benevolent abstraction and becomes a diktat telling specific, actual human beings what to do, the cop’s job is to make good on that diktat by using force against citizens.

We need the police to protect us from criminals. We should be grateful for their presence.

We need the police to protect us from criminals. We should be grateful for their presence, thank them for their service, and remember the presumption of innocence when they are charged with wrong-doing. This is particularly true in New York City, where aggressive policing helped make the city livable again after the wave of violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s.

John Podhoretz notes, however, that part of this turnaround came from “broken windows” policing which emphasized restoring order by cracking down even on minor violations. But this case strikes me as a very, very minor non-crime, and even Podhoretz concludes that in this new, low-crime era the police need to ratchet back their response to such minor violations.

We should remember that whenever the police use force, there is the danger that they will kill someone, whether through malice, poor judgment, poor training, or sheer accident. From time to time, they’re going to shoot the wrong person or wrestle a guy to the ground without knowing that he has serious health problems and can’t survive this kind of rough handling. That is one good reason (among many) to make sure that police are only authorized to interfere with someone whose actions are a threat to the lives and property of others, and not just to enforce some dumb, petty regulation.

The contradiction of the left is that they want to inject government into every little aspect of our lives and mandate that the police confront us all the time over everything—and then they scream when some of those confrontations go wrong. In this way, they are not only hoping for a new series of contentious, racially charged killings. By extending the reach of government and the omnipresence of police power in our lives, they are creating the conditions that make those cases inevitable.

Follow Robert on Twitter.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments