Unlike the recent shootings by police of Michael Brown, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, there’s something—the video—about the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo that has folks on both sides of the political aisle criticizing the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict, with conservative mainstays like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer saying Wednesday, for instance, that “from looking at the grand jury’s decision here, it’s totally incomprehensible.”
Or even former President George W. Bush, who called the decision “hard to understand.”
But there are a lot of conservatives still rationalizing and caveating away the naked injustice of the case with near-excuses about the circumstances of Garner’s death: Garner shouldn’t have resisted arrest; Garner had a criminal record; the police sergeant at the scene was a black woman.
For the record, I don’t consider what Garner was doing “resisting.” Saying, “I’m minding my business, please just leave me alone”—which Garner said shortly before Pantaleo jumped him—doesn’t sound to me like resisting; it sounds like a Tea Party slogan.
But even if you do think he was resisting—which, I’ll grant, is how police will always see it—no one can watch that video and reasonably conclude that Garner was threatening physical harm, in any way, toward any of the officers trying to arrest him.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones making these “arguments,” but you’re hearing these talking points loudest on the right. Here are three of the worst:
The choke hold wasn’t “illegal.”
Yes, it was. On Wednesday night, cable news king Bill O’Reilly went out of his way to emphasize several times that Pantaleo’s “choke hold was not illegal; it’s against department policy”—a distinction without a difference if there ever was one.
Baseball bats aren’t illegal, but it’s still illegal to kill someone with a baseball bat, unless it’s in self-defense. The point about the choke hold isn’t that it hasn’t been specifically banned by statute in the state of New York. It’s the fact that if it’s not authorized as a legitimate policing technique, then Pantaleo had no more legal right to choke Garner to death than a civilian does.
This was about a big-government cigarette tax.
Fox News’ Greg Guttfeld said Thursday that the issue in this case isn’t “cops vs. blacks but government vs. citizens. The nanny state crushing the individual.” A sentiment echoed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “the individual circumstances are important, but I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes,” adding, “For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it,” but “I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.”
I happen to agree that NYC's cigarette tax—and the police department directive to aggressively prohibit the sale of loose cigarettes—is, indeed, big government run amok. But there’s no NYPD directive I’m aware of that states that violators of the loosie law should be taken into custody at all costs, up to and including choking a man to death just because he’s suspected of selling them.
Rather than trying to take Garner into custody with force that was brutal in any case—and ultimately proved deadly in this case—the officers at the scene could easily have issued him a citation or summons. If it’s as ludicrous a crime as conservatives say it is (and it is), and that’s all Garner was charged with, then there was no need to take him into custody. Write him a ticket and move on. Don’t kill him.
Eric Garner was “huge.”
We keep hearing references to Garner being 300, 350 or even 400 pounds—as Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro made sure to point out at the outset of his breakdown of the case. But what of it?
People—including Garner and Pantaleo—come in all shapes and sizes. And part of a police officer’s job, or any public servant’s job, is that you have to take people as you find them. There’s no justification for singling out an unarmed man—who’s not being violent or threatening violence—for violent treatment, just because he’s big. If you’re a cop and you can’t handle the fact that you’re eventually going to interact with a guy who’s bigger than you, then you shouldn’t be a cop.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.