When video footage of a California highway patrolman pummeling a defenseless 51-year-old black woman named Marlene Pinnock surfaced on July 1, it sent shock waves throughout many communities around the country. It took place in broad daylight on the side of a freeway and was heart-wrenching to watch as she was pursued on foot by the officer, slammed to the ground and punched repeatedly in the head like someone on the losing end of a vicious Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. To those of us who know this painful violence all too well, though, we were simply relieved that the attack had not ended fatally for Pinnock.
That sort of twisted logic is what happens sometimes when one has seen or experienced this kind of trauma one too many times. It’s what happens in the aftershock of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell. It’s what some of us have felt since the terror of the day we watched the Rodney King beating on TV in 1991.
It forces the mind to either rupture with rage or adjust to the injustice by accepting this as an inconvenient caveat of being black in America.
On Thursday, July 17, Eric Garner died on a sidewalk in Staten Island after a New York City policeman ambushed him from behind with a devastating choke hold. The 43-year-old black married father of six children had reportedly broken up a fight moments before two officers arrived and attempted to arrest him instead on the suspicion that he had sold a “loosie,” an untaxed cigarette, to someone.
The tragic encounter was captured on video by one of Garner’s friends and quickly gained national oxygen after it was posted online. In the footage, Garner can be heard telling one of the officers, “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it.” Tired of being harassed. Tired of being treated like a criminal. Tired of being hunted in black skin.
The recording doesn’t require any ancillary emotions to convey the pain Garner suffered at the hands of these officers. The asthmatic Garner can be heard wheezing, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” while being choked as more officers jump on top of him before his body apparently goes limp.
It’s not often that we get to see someone die so tragically in real life. Yet Garner’s death is part of a long-standing narrative of terrorizing black people in this country for generations.
As a 34-year-old black man, I am terrified of ending up like Eric Garner. Living in New York City, I carry the fear of being harmed by the police daily. And while black-on-black crime is as much of a statistical threat to my life as unprovoked police violence, I fear the latter more exceedingly when I walk out of my front door every morning.
It is a horror that countless black people harbor and is reinforced on every street corner of America.
When I was 16 and living in Miami, a friend and I were riding home one day from wrestling practice after school when the car he was driving was signaled over by four dark SUVs with flashing police lights. More than a dozen masked men dressed in black with high-powered assault rifles pointing at us quickly surrounded the vehicle. They wore bulletproof vests and appeared ready to fire given any sudden movement by either of us inside the car.
We were petrified. My entire life flashed before my eyes. When we asked what we had done wrong, they said we fit the description of two “thugs” they were searching for. It was a case of mistaken identity, which sounds harmless to those who have never been mistakenly identified, but the terror of feeling like I was going to die that day has never left me.
Since then I’ve had more encounters with police than I can count. I attended college in Central Pennsylvania; lived in cities like Detroit, Orlando, Fla., and New York; and have been stopped multiple times at random. Some were similar instances of “mistaken identity,” but others were blatant acts of racial profiling.
Garner’s death, like many before him, has sparked public outrage. The Rev. Al Sharpton has called for justice to be served. And in the days and weeks to come, there’ll be rallies and debates over the NYPD’s stop-and-harass tactics in black communities. But what will change?
What will justice look like for Eric Garner and his loved ones?
Tragedies like this must move us in front of a mirror and compel us to collectively evaluate our fortitude as a community. Until something is done, however, to stop these public executions from ever happening again, I will remain frightened of dying like Eric Garner.
See some of the cases of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement here.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics. Follow him on Twitter.