UPDATE: Despite earlier reports indicating the Garner family hadn’t reached a settlement, the New York Times is now reporting that the family has accepted a payment of $5.9 million.
One year ago this week, on July 17th, 2014, Eric Garner died at the hands of an NYPD cop. His killing was so cruel it was impossible to ignore – a 43-year-old father and grandfather, choked to death on camera as he pleaded for his life, all for the alleged crime of selling loose cigarettes. The case became a flashpoint for protests across the nation when a grand jury declined even to indict the officer who wrung the life from Garner’s neck. A year later, it’s once again making headlines after Garner’s widow reportedly turned down a $5 million wrongful death settlement offered by the city.
Much of the coverage of this story has come with a vague tone of disbelief. But is it really any wonder that Esaw Garner turned down the city’s offer? Yes, $5 million is a lot of money; the New York Daily News notes that it “would have been one of the largest wrongful death settlements stemming from a killing by NYPD cops.” The paper cites a source who says the Garner family’s lawyer urged her to take the offer – and maybe, on a basic pragmatic level, that makes sense. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the underlying logic behind the offer.
The Daily News quotes another civil rights lawyer who breaks it down: According to the law, “settlements are quantified by calculating the victim’s conscious pain and suffering, as well as loss of family income.” This lawyer proceeds to say that Eric Garner’s “conscious pain and suffering” were likely limited to one minute – the minute during which an officer sworn to protect him took his life instead. As to the “family income” point, the Daily News says, “Garner was known to cops for selling loose cigarettes – a hustle that likely didn’t yield big bucks.”
There’s a shocking callousness to that statement: Eric Garner’s “hustle…likely didn’t yield big bucks.” His future earnings probably weren’t very much. He was the kind of person who needed to sell loosies to get by, the kind of person who had a “hustle,” not a job. The message comes through loud and clear: Eric Garner was poor, and because of that, his life wasn’t worth as much as a rich man’s. What’s worse is that this isn’t just the opinion of the Daily News, or even of the anonymous lawyer the paper quotes. It’s the law.
What kind of depraved way is this to measure the value of a person’s life? Why can’t we count up the hours Garner would have gotten to spend with his children and grandchildren if he’d been allowed to live, instead? Why does his income enter the picture at all? Why isn’t his life worth much more than $5 million in and of itself, simply because it was a human life, because he was a person who got killed by his own city for no good reason?
This is what’s meant by “black lives matter.” Eric Garner was killed by a police officer, and that killer walked away scot-free, because we live in a country that systematically devalues black life. Now New York City is trying to devalue his life further, with an insultingly low proposition meant to make this case go away. It feels like the kind of lowball offer you make for a used car, not for a human being’s wrongful death. Turning it down sends a powerful statement that Eric Garner’s life mattered, that it still matters. Maybe this really is the most money that his family can hope for in a lawsuit of this nature. But only a cold heart could begrudge his widow for refusing to settle yet.