Thursday, December 11, 2014

For, Because, and Over: the misattribution of motive

Tim walked into a grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread. When he paid for it, the cashier forgot to say, "You saved 24 cents today by using your loyalty card, and you earned 23 fuel points." She was supposed to say that. It's company policy. She could be disciplined for not saying that. It's in the employee handbook. There was a note posted right by the time clock and they mentioned it at the last managers meeting, but she still neglected to do it.

After that, Tim stepped out of the store, bread in hand, and got run over by a car in the parking lot.

If some of the people who have been covering the Eric Garner story were reporting on this event, the headline would read:

Cashier admits wrongdoing but avoids criminal charges

Good gods, y'all. I was really staying away from this one. I think I wanted this movement to have half a leg to stand on, so when I heard that the cops used a choke hold and that the suspect hadn't done anything (or had just broken up a fight between two other people, depending on which version you listen to), that was good enough for me. Choke holds were banned back in the 80s, and NYPD is widely known to be corrupt as hell. So that's all the more I really wanted to get into it.

But today, for some reason, I looked up the video. The link I clicked had it embedded in an article in a UK publication, so I read that, too. Regardless of what you think of New York's law against selling loose cigarettes, Garner did it repeatedly. He got busted for it over and over and over, yet every time, he'd go right back to doing it. Everybody knew where to find him selling these cigs for 50-cents apiece.

Like so many criminals, Eric Garner felt entitled to break the law, and saw the police as being the ones in the wrong for "harassing" him about selling the illegal cigarettes. He finally got fed up with it, and as he told the plainclothes police in the video, "This ends today." He was giving them an order--he was going to keep doing what he wanted, and they were to look the other way.

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock could predict that this sort of thing was going to lead to an arrest. But he didn't submit and put his hands behind his back. He kept pulling away. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief about what's supposed to happen in such cases, that doesn't mean he doesn't have to go to jail. The cops don't just shrug and walk away because he doesn't feel like getting arrested.

They didn't shoot him. They didn't taze him--though they could have at that point, had they had Tasers. They didn't pepper spray him, and wisely so, as that wouldn't really have made him any easier to control. They put their hands on him...but they messed up in how they were supposed to do it.

The little guy who jumped up and wrapped an arm around Eric Garner's neck shouldn't have done that. It's not what killed Garner and probably wasn't even a contributing factor, but he still shouldn't have done it. He should have known better. He should be taken off the streets, disciplined, and retrained in open-hand compliance techniques before they let him back on patrol.

He could have jumped up and locked onto the pressure point under Garner's nose and dragged him down...but that doesn't always work. He could have jumped up and, instead of wrapping his arm around Garner's neck, he could have dug his elbow down into Garner's collarbone, or even wrapped his arm around Garner's forehead or eyes to drag him down just as effectively. He shouldn't have done what he did. Regardless, this improper and banned technique isn't what killed the man.

If the medical examiner said anything beyond "homicide" (meaning simply that it was a death caused by the actions of another person, as opposed to natural cause, suicide, or an accident not caused by another person), I haven't heard about it yet. But looking at the video, and reading what I have about Garner's physical condition (he was morbidly obese, had severe asthma, and was said to not be able to walk even a block without having to stop and rest), I'd guess that what we saw was an asthma attack, some other problem caused by the sudden exertion of fighting the police, or positional asphyxia.

Positional asphyxia is a real problem for the police. Basically, it's what happens when you lay down a person who's so freakin' fat that they can't breathe if they lie down because they suffocate under their own weight. Any pressure on the chest cavity (from the front or back--like a cop's knee between someone's shoulder blades) can also cause it. The reason it's a problem is that laying a person on the ground is the most effective way of controlling them so they can't fight while being handcuffed. So how do you handcuff a very large person who doesn't want to be handcuffed, without endangering that person or yourself, when that person might die if you just put them horizontal? I got out of law enforcement in 2007, and they still hadn't solved the problem by then. If there's been a recent development, I haven't heard it. The last time it was mentioned in my training, the advice at the time was just to not leave people on the ground longer than you had to. Once Garner was cuffed, they could have gotten him back up into a sitting or kneeling position. There's no telling, though, whether that would have saved him, or if it was simply the exertion of fighting that killed him.

But let's return to the video. We see an officer put Garner in a choke hold to pull him down...and then he lets go! After that, we see other officers grabbing other parts of Garner's body, notably one pushing down on his head. The whole time, Garner's yelling, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" There are two important things to note here: 1) nobody's choking him anymore by the time he's saying this, and 2) breathing is a prerequisite to being able to say anything, even, "I can't breathe!"

So, once again, just like most of these cases, a criminal with questionable judgment fought the police and died losing. Like so many of the other cases we've been hearing so much about, a witness--in this case the guy recording the video--lied through his teeth about the suspect's innocence to make the officers' actions seem even more egregious and unjustified. (You can hear him saying they're arresting Garner for breaking up a fight, when it's clear from the conversation between the officer and Garner that they're talking about him selling a cigarette to a man in a red shirt.)

While we're on the subject, let's get back to the issue of cause-and-effect that I alluded to in the example of the headline about Tim and the grocery store. When you see these headlines like "Police Shoot Couple for Speeding" or "Police Kill Man for Jaywalking" or "Officer Beats Man to Death for Refusing to Show Driver's License," you're being intentionally misled. There's a cause-and-effect relationship being suggested that simply doesn't exist. It's not like the police stop a person for speeding, the speeder pulls over and cooperates, and instead of handing the speeder a ticket, the cop says, "I find you guilty of speeding, and in this city, the penalty for that is death," and then shoots them. In every single case, from serious stuff like bank robbery on down to the pettiest of crimes, the police simply stop people to effect an arrest or to issue a summons or a warning. Then the suspect takes it upon himself or herself to resist. They try to tell the cop that the cop can't arrest them, or they try to run away, or worst of all, they actually attack the cop--as we saw in the Ferguson case.

If you start a fight with the police, the police are going to finish it. You aren't going to win. The two choices are to quit fighting while you're still alive (and hope it's not too late to stay that way), or to keep fighting until you're not. Very simply put, when the police justifiably kill someone (as opposed to the unjustified cases--and they do exist), it's either because they were defending themselves or others, or because the suspect fought back to the point that lethal force was needed to capture and subdue the suspect.

In the Garner case, though, the police didn't use lethal force. Except for the wrong-but-irrelevant choke hold, they used exactly the force that would typically be used to subdue a resisting man of Garner's size. They didn't do it wrong. He died because he was in no shape to be wrestling several police officers. At most, the police were reckless or negligent in Garner's death. I could have possibly seen an indictment for manslaughter, but not murder. The fact that nobody was indicted doesn't tell me that there was a gross miscarriage of justice so much as that the grand jury likely didn't blame the officers for Mr. Garner's poor health.

Nonetheless, we'll continue to hear both professional and amateur reporters and pundits saying that the police killed or harmed a person because of some minor infraction. At the same time, they'll completely omit the suspect's own role in the event. And that's because they're pushing a version of reality not supported by the facts. They want you to believe that the police routinely approach innocent people who are minding their own business, and mercilessly attack and murder them at the slightest provocation or no provocation at all, at least if the victims are black.


This narrative gets repeated again and again despite it bearing so little resemblance to reality. Why? Who stands to gain by having you believe that that's how the world works? In what way will things change for the better if we all believe that?

Understand that I'm not saying that police corruption, abuse, and brutality don't exist. They do, they're widespread, and they frequently go unpunished. But if an activist movement wants to protest police wrongdoing, they could pick better poster children. Instead of looking at cases where homeless people and the harmless mentally ill who weren't resisting have been killed by police, they've chosen to make martyrs of criminals who fight the police. Why? Well, one common theme I see is that the ones who get mentioned on protest signs are all black, while a lot of the victims of clear cases of unjustified brutality are not. There's been a conscious effort on the part of the people shaping and guiding this movement to keep the focus not so much on police error or misconduct, but to keep it on race and the idea that the cops have it out for black people. They want to present this as a sort of informal but systematic genocide, even though the totality of the facts really doesn't support that view.

I'll leave speculation on the motivations behind this bit of public opinion shaping to people better qualified to comment on it, but I will be addressing other aspects of the clash between police actions and public opinion in a series of future posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment