In Eric Garner’s Last Words Was a Demand for Dignity

Your Take: The New York City father gave voice to the frustration felt by people of color who live with racial discrimination on a daily basis.

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Image from the video that showed Staten Island, N.Y., resident Eric Garner’s fatal encounter with members of the New York City Police Department

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“This stops today.” 

Eric Garner’s haunting declaration, made during his deadly encounter with New York City police officers, has become a rallying cry for New Yorkers outraged by the latest example of police violence. Garner’s words speak to the frustration of a man—and a community—besieged by repeated police harassment, and they echo his basic human need to defend his right to dignity. Thus, Garner’s powerful words cut to the heart of the ongoing problem of racial discrimination in this country and the importance of the struggle to eliminate it.

The fight for full civil rights has always been, at its core, a demand for dignity. The “I Am a Man” placards worn by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 demanded recognition of the humanity of workers who labored under inhumane conditions. The Supreme Court, in upholding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmed Congress’ intent to vindicate “the personal dignity” of individuals by allowing them access to public accommodations on an equal basis. And the iconic photograph of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted at the Montgomery, Ala., police station, after deciding to protest segregation in 1955, stands today as among the most eloquent and forceful demands for dignity in the history of civil disobedience.

Despite this history, in America today, dignity appears to be lost in the court’s and/or the public’s conception of racial-discrimination claims, just as we are beginning to see renewed, powerful attacks on the dignity of people of color. Racial profiling is the paradigmatic assault on dignity. It is a wholesale dismissal of the humanity and equality of students, judges, celebrities and everyday citizens alike. Time and again, blacks who have been victims of racial profiling describe being humiliated by the devastating awfulness of being seen not as a person or individual but instead as a “type.” Whatever progress this country makes toward eliminating racial discrimination will be incomplete unless and until this humiliation is no longer an inevitable life experience for people of color.

Fear is also challenging the boundaries of dignity for people of color—fear of changing demographics, fear of crime, fear of terrorism, fear of the loss of political power. The proliferation of “Stand your ground” laws has left African Americans uniquely vulnerable to fears—however unfounded—of black criminality. The fear of voter fraud—a crime for which there is still no significant documentation—drives the push to require, for the first time in history, the presentation of a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, despite the clear evidence that such a requirement will disproportionately affect African-American and Latino voters. 

Eric Garner’s stand for his dignity ended in his death at the hands of the police. Those responsible must be held fully accountable for their role in his death. But if the past is anything to go by, we can predict what will happen first: Garner will be painted as the agent of his own death; his record will be scoured for misdoing and illegality; he will be painted as the aggressor confronting well-meaning, frightened police officers; and his dignity will be further diminished. But, thankfully, the video taken of this awful encounter tells its own story. And that story is one that we must confront in its full dimensions, including what it tells us about the still-too-elusive right to dignity for African Americans in encounters with the police. 

At the core of every claim to be treated fairly—by the police, in the courts, in schools and in the workplace—is a demand for full dignity. This is the promise of citizenship. This is the right of every person in a democracy.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Follow her on Twitter.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.