The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate
Nobody’s willing to say it yet. But after Ferguson, and especially after the Eric Garner case that exploded in New York yesterday after yet another non-indictment following a minority death-in-custody, the police suddenly have a legitimacy problem in this country.
Law-enforcement resources are now distributed so unevenly, and justice is being administered with such brazen inconsistency, that people everywhere are going to start questioning the basic political authority of law enforcement. And they’re mostly going to be right to do it, and when they do, it’s going to create problems that will make the post-Ferguson unrest seem minor.
The Garner case was a perfect symbol of everything that’s wrong with the proactive police tactics that are now baseline policy in most inner cities. Police surrounded the 43-year-old Garner after he broke up a fight. The officers who responded to that call then decided to get in Garner’s face for the preposterous crime of selling “loosies,” i.e. single cigarettes from a pack.
When the police announced that they were taking him in to run him for the illegal tobacco sale, Garner balked and demanded to be left alone. A few minutes later he was in a choke hold, gasping “I can’t breathe,” and en route to fatal cardiac arrest.
On the tape you can actually hear the echo of Garner’s years of experience with Broken Windows-style policing, a strategy based on a never-ending stream of small intrusive confrontations between police and residents in target neighborhoods.
The ostensible goal of Broken Windows is to quickly and efficiently weed out people with guns or outstanding warrants. You flood neighborhoods with police, you stop people for anything and everything and demand to see IDs, and before long you’ve both amassed mountains of intelligence about who hangs with whom, and made it genuinely difficult for fugitives and gunwielders to walk around unmolested.
You can make the argument that the policies work, as multiple studies have cited “hot spot” policing as a cause of urban crime-rate declines (other studies disagree, but let’s stipulate).
But the psychic impact of these policies on the massive pool of everyone else in the target neighborhoods is a rising sense of being seriously pissed off. They’re tired of being manhandled and searched once a week or more for riding bikes the wrong way down the sidewalk (about 25,000 summonses a year here in New York), smoking in the wrong spot, selling loosies, or just “obstructing pedestrian traffic,” a.k.a. walking while black.
This is exactly what you hear Eric Garner complaining about in the last moments of his life. “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” he says. “It stops today!”
This is the part white Middle American news audiences aren’t hearing about these stories. News commentators like the New York Post’s Bob McManus (“Blame Only the Man Who Tragically Decided to Resist“), predictably in full-on blame-the-victim mode, are telling readers that the mistake made by Eric Garner was resisting the police in a single moment of obstinacy over what admittedly was not a major offense, but a crime nonetheless. McManus writes:
He was on the street July 17, selling untaxed cigarettes one at a time — which, as inconsequential as it seems, happens to be a crime.
The press and the people who don’t live in these places want you to focus only on the incidents in question. It was technically a crime! Annoying, but he should have complied! His fault for dying – and he was a fat guy with asthma besides!
But the real issue is almost always the hundreds of police interactions that take place before that single spotlight moment, the countless aggravations large and small that pump up the rage gland over time.
Over the last three years, while working on a book about the criminal justice gap that ended up being called The Divide, I spent a lot of time with people like Eric Garner. There’s a shabby little courthouse at 346 Broadway in lower Manhattan that’s set up as the place you go to be sentenced and fined for the kind of ticket Staten Island cops were probably planning on giving Garner.
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