I am struggling.
When I do poetry workshops, I tell participants that they must strive for originality over all things. I may accept a poem of suspect quality, but you have to say something I haven’t heard before.
I am struggling with my own advice today. I want to say something about the failure to indict in the case of Eric Garner’s death that I haven’t already said about the police and brutality and choke holds and power systems and racism and criminality and body cameras that I haven’t said before. And I am struggling. I am struggling because I can replace every other dead black victim’s name with Eric Garner’s in half of the pieces I’ve written on these issues already and it still apply one hundred percent.
If I have a religion it is called “logical hope.” Like all religions, it has its rituals: study and research an issue, uncover variants of the same behavior in the past, preach the gospel of how things can be made better, and apply faith. What differentiates the practice from regular hope is that I don’t ever do it blindly and solely out of emotion. I don’t give up the ghost for any ol’ good time feeling or catchy mottos. You will not #BlackLivesMatter your way into THIS heart, comrades. No: you must PROVE they matter in my church. My deacons are History and Common Sense. They tell me when it’s okay to hope, when the math says things are going a certain way and it is okay to think – to even consider – that change is possible. It isn’t a perfect religion. I have to change out the hymns all of the time because hope is a fleeting thing in this fast and increasingly brutal world. For every instance of possibility exists an instance of its opposite: for every Sean Groubert that’s caught on tape and punished for inappropriate police work, there is a Daniel Pantaleo let completely off the hook despite being caught dead to rights choking a man to death in full view of a camera. It is not a religion for the weak, or for the political sprinter. It is a chess game of a religion that eats its grandmasters alive if they cannot adapt their message and tactics. I say all of this to admit, in a moment of brutal but necessary honesty, that this is worse for me than Ferguson, and Ferguson hit me hard. Watching a man – more like you than not – who posed no threat to a literal gang of policemen choked to death in a matter of seconds on video is no small pill to swallow. To know that despite what you have seen, no one will even bother to consider that an inappropriate thing was done in that moment is downright terrifying. In Garner’s case, we know exactly what happened. We have all of the pieces that we did not have a week ago in Ferguson: We know what Garner did and did not do. We know what he did and did not possess. We know exactly what the transaction looked like: how long it lasted, who touched who first, what was said…we are, for all intents and purposes, there in the moment of his demise. Everything about the moment feels wrong, feels too fast, too short. You can see the life leaving his body. And as you watch it, you are not alone. Millions of people are watching it with you, before you, after you, talking about it around you. You are surrounded by communal awareness of a wrong thing at the same time, and at all times. You choke on the weight of that awareness that almost feels like a responsibility, as if watching it is a duty. It is not a job fit for decent human beings. It is beyond discomforting.
You can’t breathe.
I’m at work when the news breaks about the failure to indict. I shouldn’t be. I should have left after lunch, but I didn’t know when the verdict was going to come. I called off the day after the Ferguson decision. I could not do public service and fawning help and smiling against my will that day. I can’t take off to recuperate from the Garner decision. I don’t have enough leave saved up. It occurs to me that there should be bereavement time for public injustices. Who would you get the note from? How would you diagnose it? Shouldn’t everybody get the day off? Does it become a holiday? How do you celebrate injustice? Do you light a tree on Rockefeller Center in dishonor? Is it a legal or federal holiday? Is the mayor of New York City the only one that gets to take it off?
In the library where I work, children are playing on computers, taking pictures of each other in the bathroom, trying to win at Minecraft…doing the things they do when this kind of thing isn’t happening. Or when it’s always happening. They don’t know about Eric Garner yet. They don’t know the statistics, or if they are one. I don’t know whether to envy them or fear for them. I don’t know whether to be happy that reality is not a priority for them yet, or to be terrified that they can’t see what’s waiting for them just outside the door. My religion says, statistically speaking, the fact that they’re in a library would suggest that their chances of murder are significantly less than in the street, and that long term daily or weekly usage drops that statistic even further.
Let the church say amen.
Every conversation about this is going to seem so plastic tonight, so pointless. Numbing. If you aren’t numb you haven’t been keeping score. I want to go back onto the Facebook thread where I was debating with an actual police officer about body cams and just say, “You know what? I give up. No more essays, no more updates, no more poems. You win.” But then, he doesn’t need to hear that. He already knows.
Eric Garner was, in every sense of the word, lynched: choked by an unchecked, un-punishable mob in front of a helpless community without trial and with no regard for his suffering in the process. Someone asked, “Why didn’t this get the buzz that Ferguson did when it happened?” Because we thought it was a slam dunk. We thought, “No WAY they don’t see that for what it is.” There isn’t a police training video in the world that better illustrates what an illegal chokehold looks like than the video shot by Ramsey Orta.
Another reason is because Garner is so clearly a victim and not a hulking, demon-faced charging bull of an aggressor: hands raised to his head even as they put their hands on him, making no movements that could be construed as an attack, resisting only verbally…all for naught. Eric Garner is dead, not because he was a threat, but because he was defensive, because he questioned authority. Unlike many of the other cases that we can all name in the last year (assuming we remember them), there was no apparent motivation for the police to put their hands on him in that moment save they were done having a debate: no toy guns, no anonymous 911 call feigning fear, no dispatch about a cigar snatching…just a man on a corner wielding nothing.
It’s one thing to keep hearing people tell you that there is a systemic process that eats their kind alive. It’s another to experience the blanching of your face as you see it happening. I imagine privilege never feels so heavy as when you’re watching that video, knowing that it’s one in a long line of videos that haven’t even resulted in the consideration of punishment. I have to imagine it because I’ll never actually know.
Which brings us, naturally, to cameras.
This is the part where the people who were reluctant to give the body cam-ers any leeway jump and say, “A-ha! See? It doesn’t matter if you give police cameras. They get off anyway!” I get that. It’s an easy point to make in light of the gross negligence of the decision we saw tonight. It’s a statement that perfectly aligns with dashed hope and Twitter-level discourse.
But it’s also missing the point.
This sort of thing used to happen all of the time with no fallout, no awareness raising, no public support no national conversation, no leadership check-ins, no White House conferences or proposals…nothing. It used to happen quiet, silent as death. It used to just…happen. And somewhere, someone might record the essential details for the record and file it away, but nothing else. It was the life cycle of a statistic. In most cases, it still is…or at least, the ones without any video whatsoever.
Question: Can a body cam save a life?
Answer: Maybe, maybe not. If its purpose is largely preemptive, we only know when we have an area to compare that didn’t have cameras and now does. The data so far suggests strongly that yes, they can.
Question: Can a body cam bring justice?
Answer: Sometimes “yes” (see Groubert), sometimes “no” (see Pantaleo).
If it sounds like I’m arguing against the usefulness of video, I’m not. A camera is a powerful tool. Cameras are part of the reason why the U.S. got halfway off its ass on race relations in the 1960s: because cameras were broadcasting firehosed children and police dogs ripping the church dresses off of women over dinner. Take a second and consider – truly consider – where we’d be without those iconic images playing around the world, images so powerful they remain the bar for civil protests in this country and an example around the world.
Not that cameras are the issue or the goal, mind you. No one I have ever seen supporting body cams ever mentioned it in the same breath as a singular, silver bullet solution. Body cams were always the first step, were always a starting point. Hell, it’s minimal effort politically, financially and morally. Many police officers state (publicly, anyway) that they have no real problem with wearing a camera. You could fit a great many police officers with body cams with a fraction of what most departments pay out in lawsuits. So for the body cam haters out there, look up what the word “incremental” means, because if you’re holding out any hope – regardless of your religion – and are actually working to create any change, you’re going to need it tattooed to your foreheads. Cameras are not the flashpoint or the goal. They’re a step. They’re a tool. Sure, we need larger toolboxes. But putting body cams on cops is progress. Technology has always changed the speed and spread of every cause and movement on the planet, and it continues to do so at ever-increasing rates. But the road is so much longer than we thought. And God, our steps are so, so small.
I am struggling. I am treading water in a riptide of jaw-dropping racism, unbelievable mismanagement of public trust, and surrounded by ignorance in every corner of my life. I scarcely know where to go to escape it. A part of me demands that I don’t even try, that by my very existence I have a responsibility to stay woke. The parts that are still striving for colorless humanity are tired and weak and falling off of the machinery I use to combat the system every day. My toolbox is found wanting. I cannot find solace in my humor, my friends, my poetry. Looking back over all of the words I have committed to this issue in the last week, I feel only an impotence now. I do not know what else to say, save that you have sincerely and keenly wounded me, America. It was never just about Ferguson, just like it was never just about Trayvon and it was never just about Rodney King (who had the “Thriller” of police beating videos) and so on, and so on. And you wonder: how many names can you fit into the eleven letters of “so on, and so on?”
I’ll tell you: all of them.