Eric Garner, the ‘American problem’ and a chance to unite

We all want to change the world. EPA/Porter Binks

Police violence has dominated American headlines over the past year. The seemingly unaccounted-for police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson brought renewed attention and public protests to this issue; now, the decision not to charge officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, even after he was caught on video illegally restraining him with a chokehold, has only added to these rising concerns over apparently unaccountable use of force by police officers across the country, particularly against African-Americans.

In the months since Garner’s death, authorities had feared unrest on the same scale as in Ferguson, or even worse. These worries were especially acute in light of video footage showing the officer putting the victim in an illicit chokehold while he repeatedly gasped: “I can’t breathe.”

This evidence was even more damning given the coroner’s report that the death was a homicide caused “by the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police”.

Not surprisingly, this violence has been largely linked to the persistence of racism in the US. The American news cycle has been tightly focused on the country’s racial divisions, the threat of race riots and the stark disparity in the way the white majority and the African-American minority are treated.

But tragic and racially charged though these incidents have been, they are also a golden opportunity to unite Americans behind the cause of fundamental social change – a cause that encompasses racism, but goes further too. And while no such movement is yet in the offing, the seeds of one are already starting to sprout.

Black lives matter

The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, quickly responded to Pantaleo’s non-indictment with appeals for non-violent protests, declaring: “New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way.”

While the moderating impulse is understandable, sentiments such as these do little more than focus attention on the “threat” of “violent” blacks rather than the actual aggression and violence of the white police officers responsible for Garner’s death.

But de Blasio also managed to advance things a little, bluntly and honestly acknowledging that “centuries of racism that have brought us to this day”. That spoke to the deeper anger driving these protests, reflected in the protesters’ rallying cry: “Black lives matter”.

At the heart of these words and the protests they addressed was a desire to unite the country in condemning the status quo. The emphasis was on “healing” a divided nation, while also recognising the serious need for reform at all levels of the state. As the US president, Barack Obama, said in response: “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.”

But crucial to the success of those efforts will be realising that this is not just a racial problem – it is a problem with authority in the US in general.

Fight the system

Undeniably, African Americans are disproportionately affected by police violence – but it also affects people of all races. Within months of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the Ferguson police, there were two less publicised cases of excessive police violence against white suspects in the surrounding area: Joseph Jennings, who was shot 16 times outside a Kansas hardware store, and 17-year-old Bryce Masters, who ended up in a coma after a police officer tasered him when he refused to roll down his window after being stopped.

Obama echoed this need to both recognise the racial dynamic driving much of this violence while also the importance of treating it as a national not just “black” or “minority” crisis. He maintained: “The problem is not just a Ferguson problem. It’s an American problem.”

In order to address the problem, we have to confront its deeper causes, ones that certainly involve but are by no means limited to the country’s ongoing structural racism. Rising inequality and poverty, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, have done much to contribute to police brutality. These economic factors have been exacerbated by the growing domination of US politics by elites.

Framing police violence as principally a “black problem” reinforces the underlying notion that African-Americans are somehow separate from other Americans and that authoritarian crackdowns on them are reactive, not active. This plays into an established tactic of strategically highlighting racial divisions within the country to distract attention from other issues such as class polarisation and oligarchy.

Ultimately, this is a way to freeze out solidarity across race, geography and even class, leaving Americans with an identity politics of distrust and conflict.

This strategy is part of the culture of fear that has driven much of the US government’s policy for decades. From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, chronic and growing issues of unemployment, economic insecurity and declining social welfare are channelled into anger and action against existential “enemies” – most of whom are non-white, or in some way portrayed as less than “American”.

These policy “wars” have been mounted in the service of a growing authoritarianism in contemporary America. The militarisation of the police force, for instance, reflects the government’s need to neutralise urban areas marked by often extreme poverty and violence. Instead of an attack on the economic and social causes of ghettoisation and urban blight, we’ve seen a move away from “community policing” toward what has been called: “The United Police States of America”.

To overcome this strategy, then, it must be tackled as more than just a programme of racism. What must be emphasised is the authoritarianism and deeper shared disenfranchisement that motivates the state violence we see today – a tendency that certainly includes structural racism, but which is by no means limited to it.

In the words Obama used when responding to the Eric Garner case, it must be framed as an “American problem”.

Unite against authoritarianism

The foundations for such a movement are well established and span the political spectrum. On the right, anti-authoritarian feelings have spurred the Tea Party movement to unprecedented, if chaotic, success. While Tea Partiers are primarily up in arms about public intervention in the private sector, their politics speak to an underlying fear of unaccountable state power and mass political marginalisation.

Meanwhile, on the left, the Occupy movement has been railing against the growing influence of corporations and their political handmaidens since 2011; an anti-elite politics that appeals to many of the same Americans outraged at the surveillance policies of the NSA. The authoritarianism of the police response to the Occupy protests drew unforgiving attention to just how defensive US police forces can become when power is confronted.

Unpunished incidents of police violence should be a catalyst for uniting Americans in a common cause against authoritarianism. In the US, the odds are stacked against most of the general public in favour of a privileged minority – and police forces are seen to ultimately serve to protect this unfair system more than they safeguard citizens.

What is needed is a vision of constructive change, one focused not simply on individual justice but on collective national progress. That means going beyond simply blaming law enforcement officials and instead indicting the system as a whole.

The fight against police violence should unite Americans, not divide them. Before the country can heal, it first needs to come together to cure itself.

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