I am a certified news junkie, as most of you know. Some of it is the nature of my job, but it all started when I was a little kid. My parents would sit us all down and we would watch the evening news together (local NYC CBS and then the national news). For as long as I can remember, being informed about what is going on in the world has been a key part of who I am, and my parents stressed the importance of knowing what is going on around you. But these last few weeks have been hard. Between what’s happening overseas in the Middle East, in Ukraine, Syria, the refugee crisis on our border, the Ebola endemic, and the recent police brutality incidents, watching news has been a challenge.
I’m sure by now everyone has seen that deeply disturbing video of Staten Island resident Eric Garner being placed in a choke hold by the New York Police Department and then dying. I’ve seen some awful things on the internet, including violence like this, but there was something about this video that stopped me in my tracks, aside from the horrific ending.
You had Garner asking repeatedly what he did wrong. I suppose the police are under no legal obligation to tell you what they think you’re doing wrong if they have reasonable suspicion. But imagine how the incident might have ended if they had tried to talk this out instead.
The use of the chokehold. Now, I’m not a NYPD officer and I don’t even live in NYC anymore, but even I knew that chokeholds were illegal. I was disturbed by how quickly that officer went to that method; that implies to me that this isn’t the first time he’s used it. And the fact that none of the other cops stepped in to de-escalate the situation isn’t surprising to me. I am even willing to give them some small benefit of the doubt because in the heat of the moment things seem very different than when you’re observing after the fact.
That is until Garner starts saying I can’t breathe. I’m not sure how many times someone has to say they can’t breathe before you let up on them, but gee, I think once is enough. And he is heard saying it at least eight times on tape. I know he was a big guy, but with the number of officers around it was clear that he was already coming under control. So why didn’t they stop? Did they not believe him? Did they not care? I can’t believe that they actually intentionally wanted to kill him.
And what on earth were the EMS people doing? Or should I say, not doing? How on earth do you show up to that situation, see a man lying on the ground unresponsive, and not try and render aid immediately? Even if you *think* he is dead, aren’t you obligated to try until someone makes that official designation?
I am haunted by the fact that I watched a man die on the internet. I am thankful that the video exists because I imagine this would have been swept under the darkest of rugs otherwise. I am terrified by the fact that in 2014 we still have to apparently be on pins and needles around police. Another thing my parents drilled into my head, especially growing up in an all-white town as I did, was to be overly polite and respectful to police. Even if they are in the wrong, I was to remember that they had all the power, and the weapons. It is why I get a pit in my stomach EVERY time a cop pulls up behind me, even if I know I am doing nothing wrong. I can only imagine how it feels for others who are constantly in the crosshairs of law enforcement while just going about their daily lives. Aside from being aggravating, it must be simply exhausting.
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for Communications and Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123