“What Democracy Is All About”: On the Death of Eric Garner, the Broken Windows Policy, and Blaming the Victim

Less than two weeks ago, Eric Garner—a 43-year-old father of six—was killed by an NYPD officer following a confrontation over Garner’s practice of selling loose cigarettes. Garner, who was unarmed, suffered from asthma and repeatedly cried out “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” which the police officer ignored, continuing to restrain Garner in a chokehold until Garner was suffocated. While this is hardly a lone instance of police brutality—and, in fact, several other cases of officers putting suspects in chokeholds and using other brutal tactics have recently been reported—Garner’s death was made all the more shocking by the circumstances surrounding it; not only was Garner unarmed, but his alleged crime was so small as to barely be considered a crime at all. Surely this must have been an isolated case of an overzealous police officer abusing his power? Surely this can’t be part of a larger policy that has been designed to oppress the city’s minority and economically disadvantaged population? Surely this type of action can’t be tacitly condoned by an administration which claims to be progressive and sensitive to racial injustice? Well, if that’s what you were thinking, think again.

In a joint press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio today, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton spoke about Garner’s death and the NYPD’s practice—which was initially instituted during and is a hallmark of Bratton’s leadership of the NYPD—of relentlessly pursuing perpetrators of the most minor legal infractions that fall under the “quality of life” umbrella, i.e. jaywalking, littering, and selling loose cigarettes. Via Gothamist, when questioned as to whether or not this policy will lead to more instances along the lines of Garner’s death, de Blasio responded, “”I can understand why any New Yorker may say, that’s not such a big deal. But a violation of the law is a violation of the law.”

Bratton followed up by saying, “When an officer does approach you to correct your behavior… you respond. That’s what democracy is all about, that we work together, that we don’t work at odds.” Bratton’s appeal is actually directly at odds with his own promise to roll back the “broken windows” policing once crime rates had plummeted and stabilized (which they have), meaning that arrests for things like possession of small amounts of marijuana continue at the same pace as during the Bloomberg administration, and that there have been almost 100 arrests (and over 250 tickets written) for the “crime” of littering in the subway. But even more troubling is the idea that democracy is about unquestioningly following the letter of the law, even when those laws seek to criminalize the actions of large parts of the population, while ignoring similar offenses committed by other parts. And those large parts of the population that are being harassed and arrested at far higher rates? Well, they just happen to overwhelmingly consist of men of color, frequently young and generally economically disadvantaged.

Bratton wants to pretend that Eric Garner’s death was partly his own fault because he was committing a misdemeanor, and that Garner basically forfeited his life—and his rights as a citizen—because he chose to sell loose cigarettes. This is patently ridiculous and insulting; it’s as if it was the NYPD’s policy to shoot at bicyclists going the wrong way down one-way streets. Or as if a car breaking the speed limit (like, maybe one in the mayor’s motorcade?) was run off the road after being pursued by the police. Sell loose cigarettes? Get taken down in a chokehold. In possession of a small amount of marijuana? Get slammed on the ground and your head stomped in. This is not about broken windows or quality of life policing. This is about the criminalization and terrorization of an entire subset of our society. This is about institutionalized racism and classism. Statistics overwhelmingly show that more white Americans smoke marijuana, but black Americans are arrested and prosecuted at exponentially higher rates. “Democracy” has room for prosecution, but it is not about persecution. And yet that’s exactly what’s happening under the current administration’s policies. People like Eric Garner are being blamed for their own deaths, and the police department feels justified in harassing and arresting people in order to maintain a higher “quality of life.” Of course, while some people benefit from this increase in “quality of life,” others—like Garner—wind up not even having a life to live.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. Thanks for expressing my anger and frustration so cogently, Kristen.
    The hedge fund bankers who tanked our economy go scott free, while we get persecuted.
    Send Broken Windows Bratton back to L.A.