This is Eric Garner. Mr. Garner worked as a horticulturist at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. He was the father of six children. He was described as “a great dad” by his family and as a “neighborhood peacemaker” and “gentle giant” by his friends.
On July 17, 2014, at 4:45 pm, Eric Garner was approached by a plain-clothes police officer, Justin Damico, in front of a beauty supply store at 202 Bay Street in the Tompkinsville neighborhood in Staten Island. Garner’s friend, Ramsey Orta, recorded a video of the incident that immediately followed.
In the video, having been accused and arrested in the past for selling lose cigarettes, Garner says to the police officers, “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!” Garner then refuses to place his arms behind his back and is then put in a chokehold by Officer Pantaleo. While Garner repeatedly states that he is unable to breathe, other officers force him down. The video then shows officer Pantaleo using his hands to push Garner’s face into the sidewalk.
Garner died a few minutes later. He was 43 years old.
The police waited seven minutes before giving Garner cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Use of the chokehold has been prohibited by New York City Police Department policy since 1993.
Today, a grand jury decided not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner — this within a couple of weeks of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
A lot of people are angry today, people of different ages and races and social and economic classes. We want to do something. I’m open to ideas. I have a few suggestions.
1. Stay angry.
As one buddy said, “We look away or lose interest after the outrage cycle.” He’s right. We have to find a way to stay indignant, for ours is a righteous indignation and it needs to be dealt with. We must not look away. We cannot lose interest. The pursuit of justice is a long, slow process and we need to keep at it long after it stops being (and God help me for saying this) “sexy.”
2. Stay calm.
I know, I know, easy for me to say. I don’t blame the rioters for rioting; to them it must seem like nothing else is working. But I’m convinced that cooler heads will prevail and so I’d like those cooler heads to be working for justice.
3. Stop talking.
This one and the next one are for you folks — especially my white friends — who sit at the periphery of these events and the communities they are happening in, and not at the center of them. Stop telling your Facebook friends and anyone else who will listen that all Eric Garner had to do was put his hands behind his back and he’d still be alive. When I watch the video, I see a man who has clearly had enough of being hassled, but who is also relatively calm and not at all threatening. It is the responsibility of law enforcement to settle a situation down, not help it to escalate. And yes, there are two sides to every story, but you haven’t heard the other side of this one because you won’t. stop. talking.
4. Start listening.
Not waiting to speak. Listening. There’s a difference. Trust me, I suck at it. As a well-meaning but often speaking straight, white, male, I’ve had to give people permission to tell me to shut up, and you might have to, too (Get ready. They will). Stop anticipating their argument and crafting your rebuttal in your head. Stop responding to #blacklivesmatter with “ALL lives matter!” or “White lives matter too!” Of course they do. It’s just that no one has had reason to make that case in this country ever since it was first founded. Start listening to people who aren’t always sure their lives matter — people who don’t look or live like you do.
A friend who lives in St. Louis recently described to me the experience of listening to story after story from students she works with who live in Ferguson. Hour after hour, she listened to their anger and frustration and disappointment. She only shared a bit of it with me and, let me tell you, you’d want to throw a brick through a window, too. Which leads me to . . .
Alone in your room, if you need to. Better yet, gather a group of friends together and cry with them. Better yet, gather a group of neighbors together, friends and strangers alike. Cry long and cry loud. Cry over what we’ve lost and how hopeless we all feel. Cry over the fact that the world isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. If you believe in God, cry out to God to DO SOMETHING! (It’s Christmastime, after all — the celebration of God getting involved.)
6. Create safe spaces to cry, listen, and talk.
Yes, after you’ve listened for awhiiiiile, you’re allowed to start talking again) together. Share possible solutions to the problems of injustice and violence and hate. Dream up ideas and discuss how to make them a reality. Those of you who have physical space — houses, schools, libraries
, churches (seriously, churches, I’m looking at you) — open it up to the community and encourage creative thinking that leads to meaningful action.
The only way this works is if we work. Wishing for a world that we aren’t willing to work for does nobody any good. Let’s do some good. God knows we could use some.
The opinions in this article belong to the author.