Let me say at the outset that this post is not about Michael Brown and Ferguson. In fact, I consider it a complete coincidence that the grand jury deliberations concerning the death of Michael Brown happened to fall so near those on the death of Eric Garner. I have precisely zero sympathy for any violent so-called "protesters," and am furiously angry at destructive riots such as those in Ferguson, regardless of the cause or alleged cause. I also happen to think that the evidence favors Darren Wilson in the Brown case.
The Eric Garner case is far different and should be treated differently. (It's also just kind of odd that the protests concerning the Garner grand jury have been so much less destructive. I don't entirely know the reason for that. Or perhaps I've just been duped by the media into thinking the protests have been much better than the thuggish destruction in Ferguson.)
Leon Wolf has what seems to me to be a pretty sensible post on police treatment of suspects and prisoners.
I have noted a troubling trend in the course of some conservative commentary about cases such as these, which displays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of constitutional protections of civil rights. Whenever a story comes out about the use of excessive police force, a cottage industry of law enforcement officer apologists immediately begins pointing out that the suspect had a rap sheet or did something improper to bring the police to the situation and therefore whatever happened to them was their own fault. The first part of this equation is usually true – the vast majority of police interactions where force/violence becomes necessary involve people about whom the police have at least some reason to be there.
The second part shows a tendency towards acceptance of totalitarianism that I cannot either understand or abide. Just because the police suspect you (rightly or wrongly) of being involved in criminal activity does not give them carte blanche to use whatever level of force they feel like to bring the suspect into submission. Take the Eric Garner case, for instance. A number of commentators (none of whom I would trust to babysit my cat, if I had a cat) have suggested that Eric Garner was at fault for “resisting arrest.” This entirely glosses over the fact that not all instances of resisting arrest are created equal. Garner did not take any threatening or menacing actions towards the cops, he did not pull a knife or other weapon on them, and he was outnumbered by them by about 12 to 1. The sum total of “resisting arrest” in his case was to turn his back to an officer who was trying to cuff him. Would these same commentators have been comfortable if the police in question had responded to this affront to their authority by pulling their sidearm and shooting Garner in the back of the head?
Bingo. We have now all presumably seen the infamous Garner video. I have been quite simply appalled at the comments I have seen on Facebook from conservatives defending the police in what seems to me a kneejerk fashion. One of the repeated tropes is that he was "resisting arrest," which gives one an immediate picture of violent behavior. Which, of course, is not true to the facts. Garner pulled his arms (down at his sides) away from the police but did not try to tackle them. He told them not to touch him. And he was mouthy and argumentative. That's about it.
One of the most jaw-droppingly awful comments about "resisting arrest" that I have seen on this case was by a friend of a friend on Facebook who stated that Garner was "still resisting" when he was on the ground and therefore that the police actions at that point in subduing him were justified. As everyone now knows, those police actions included grinding his face into the pavement while he tried to say, "I can't breathe." I find the callousness and moral insanity of this excuse to be such as almost to render me speechless. His "resistance" on the ground was a struggle to free his face and chest so that he could breathe. Evidently he was insufficiently passive in his submission to being suffocated to death, and such a lack of passivity counts as resisting arrest, which, we are repeatedly and pompously told, "is a crime." So Garner's "crime" of "resisting" culminated in what one can only call Criminal Wriggling while being squashed into the pavement.
Well, I guess that settles it. People who commit Criminal Wriggling deserve what they get.
The problem we see is that there is a certain segment of the population (that seems to be over represented among District Attorneys) who seem to believe in the false choice that we must either permit police officers to use all the available force at their disposal under any circumstance or we must permit them to use no force at all. No one is suggesting that Panteleo should have just allowed Eric Garner to walk away, or that Shepherd was not allowed to use force to put a clearly belligerent Durden-Bosley in the car in the first place....In the case of Garner, the use of a carotid bar carried the obvious risk of serious injury or death, especially to an obviously morbidly obese middle aged man, and it constituted grossly inappropriate force to subdue a man who presented no obvious threat to the police at all.
Based on some of Wolf's other comments in the post, I gather that he thinks this has immediate legal consequences. There I'm prepared to waffle a little. Maybe there is an argument for giving policemen a little more leeway to defend themselves against the charge of manslaughter given the nature of their job. And maybe "following protocol" (which we were assured was the case with Garner) should have legal ramifications for protecting police against subsequent charges if somebody dies. Maybe. I'm not wholly convinced even of that. But I'm willing to set aside the question in light of the far more important question as to whether, in fact, excessive force was used on Garner and whether protocols are wrong. In other words, what about the moral case? Are we so committed to a kind of narrow legalism that we don't care whether what the police did to Eric Garner was wrong? Do we care only whether they have some kind of "just following protocol" defense so that we law and order types can heave a sigh of relief and go home feeling justified? If so, that's wrong. Protocol can be wrong, even grossly immoral. To apply Leon Wolf's argument, what if protocol called for shooting anybody in the head who is resisting arrest, even if he is not violent or threatening? Would that be okay, then?
Wolf emphasizes the references that are made to the rap sheet of the suspect in this case. The rap sheet argument might be relevant if the policeman claimed that the suspect attacked him. In that case, we might use the rap sheet to help evaluate the prior probability for the policeman's story. But what about in a case like Garner's, where everyone knows he didn't violently attack the police, and no one is claiming that he did? What is the relevance of the rap sheet there? I submit that its relevance there is merely to remove sympathy for the person who dies and to cause us not to care whether he was the subject of excessive police force, because he's not One of Us (respectable, law-abiding citizens). And that's wrong.
Let me emphasize here that I am not making a point about race here. I'm making a point about criminality. But the fact that Garner was already a criminal doesn't mean that what the police did here was okay. Why should it?
Such a strategy of withdrawing sympathy is also deeply short-sighted. It places everybody who comes to the unfavorable attention of the police in a legal and moral grey zone where they can be treated in almost any way. And that's dangerous. That could be you, tomorrow, Mr. Respectable Citizen, or your beloved child, through something as simple as a mistake. Does anybody remember this story of the college girl who was police-swarmed in her car for buying water?
Or what about this home schooling mother and father, repeatedly tasered for non-violently asserting their fourth amendment rights? What if the father had died from the mishandling? That could be your or I tomorrow, home schooling parents, even though we are completely law-abiding. It doesn't take much these days to come to the unfavorable attention of the police!
The fact that the home schoolers were not entirely obedient to the officers (though not violently resisting) brings us to these wise words from Wolf:
Definitely it is true that following every order given to you by a policemen promptly and courteously will reduce your chances of being killed or injured by a cop who is using excessive force. That’s obviously a good lesson for parents to teach their kids. However, I don’t want to live in America where it’s generally accepted that failing to bow and scrape before police justifies police brutality and I find myself increasingly leery of those who are willing to suggest as much in public.
Bingo yet again.
Between kneeling down on the pavement with one's hands behind one's back and abjectly crying out, "I totally submit to you! I will go wherever you want! I will do whatever you want! I completely acknowledge your police authority! Please don't hurt me!" and repeatedly bum-rushing a policeman and making a creditable attempt to get his gun (as I believe Michael Brown did) there is a looot of space.
Does anybody remember this video? Should this fellow have been wrestled and flung to the ground by six cops with his face ground into the pavement for being uppity, for speaking up, for daring to show that he knew the law and the cop didn't? Why he even refused to show the officer his ID! He argued. He didn't do what he was told! I guess he deserved...whatever. Such a position, I submit, is profoundly at odds with the American spirit and with American constitutional legal principles.
We often hear that police have to make it a priority over everything else that the officer doesn't get hurt and that the suspect has no chance to get the officer's gun. These priorities, it is alleged, support the use of overwhelming force as in the case of Eric Garner. I say, rather, that such a position concerning priorities does proceed from a misguided idea that the life of a policeman is of enormously more value than the life of anyone who is so much as suspected of a crime. That principle is obviously false. It also creates a sort of schizophrenic conflict with the principles of the American founding. Not only did those principles hold that all human lives are of equal value, the founders also showed, through constitutional principles in the Bill of Rights, that they regarded it as more important that the innocent not be punished than that the guilty be punished. That priority has created some unfortunate and arguably unjust outcomes in which the guilty (even those guilty of heinous crimes) go free through jury stupidity or wrongly applied prosecutorial discretion. But I think they had good reasons for tilting the priorities that way. Think, then, how bizarre it is to hold that a person in the in-between zone of being accused of a crime or accosted by police, but not convicted of anything, is subject to being violently killed through the use of overwhelming police force. This in service of the principle that, whatever happens, we can't take any chance of having a policeman hurt! You are not being extremely submissive. You might be dangerous. We don't know that. But "better safe (for us, the police) than sorry (for us, the police)." In order to make sure that the cop "comes home to his family at night" (a phrase I have heard on the right in this context), we will justify overwhelming you with force sufficient to raise the serious risk of accidentally killing you, even though you have been found guilty of no crime whatsoever, and certainly not of any capital crime.
Something is very wrong with that reasoning. I would ask the relatives of police officers to stop and hear themselves when they say, "I want my beloved relative to come home at night, so I want him to follow protocols [that involve using overwhelming and possibly killing force against any suspect who isn't entirely and overtly submissive]." What you are saying is that it's us against them, police against, quite literally, everybody else in the country, and that you are on the side of police, whose individual lives matter much, much more to you than those of all the other people, including the innocent.
Those of us who are law and order hawks are understandably frustrated. We have a revolving door criminal justice system. We have judges who care nothing for the lives of the innocent and who order dangerous criminals released to avoid prison overcrowding. We have slap-on-the-wrist penalties. We have juries who refuse to convict based on unreasonable doubt rather than reasonable doubt. We hear infuriating stories of obviously relevant evidence forcibly excluded from criminal proceedings for frivolous reasons, resulting in failure to convict. All of this gets us riled up. I get that. We are tired of not feeling safe on our streets.
But what is happening, in reaction to all of that, is something very disturbing, which Wolf also notes: We are becoming simply brutal and cruel towards anyone whom we can classify as "the other guy" in the sense of being "the criminal." By the way, I trust that all of you have seen the follow-up video in which the police fail to offer assistance to Garner while he lies there, presumably dying, on the street after being subdued to the point of unconsciousness. The police do not roll Garner onto his back and check to see if his airway is clear. The EMT does nothing to render assistance. They simply stand around. The lack of concern is palpable.
It is that callousness amounting to cruelty that allowed someone to make the statement I highlighted earlier in this post--that Garner was "still resisting" when he was being ground into the pavement. What I see is that we are telling ourselves not to care. We are telling ourselves that, to keep up our creds as law-and-order citizens, we must make excuses even in this fairly egregious case of excessive force. We must not say that the police did wrong. We must treat Garner's death as his own fault. We must harden our hearts even if we feel disturbed by these videos.
That is a problem. It is not principally, in my opinion, a racial problem, but it is a very real problem. Perhaps it is a predictable consequence as a reaction to all the molly-coddling of criminals elsewhere in our criminal justice system. But as mature, intelligent individuals, not to mention Christians, we should resist any such mere reaction.
In these types of cases, it's especially important to be splitters rather than lumpers. If you sympathized with Darren Wilson and had no sympathy for Michael Brown, that is because of the facts of the matter. Every case is different. You are not thereby obligated to have no sympathy for Eric Garner.
As conservatives and upholders of American constitutional principles, let's take each case on its merits instead of just taking sides. Above all, guard your heart. For out of it, as Solomon says, are the issues of life.