It has been stressed, over and over, that video is not the panacea that many believe it will be. Facile slogans, like “seeing is believing,” are contradicted by science, which has made clear in long and boring studies that what people see on videos is viewed through the lens of cultural bias. The better slogan is believing is seeing, but that defies the simple understanding of people who see the world “clearly” and “obviously.”
The video of P.O. Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner is, as such things go, quite clear.
As an aside, of only peripheral relevance at this point, I do not accept the “myth” of the case, that Garner was being arrested because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, “loosies,” as that claim arose the day after his killing. At the time, and as the video provides, the police were called to the scene because of a fight, which Eric Garner broke up.
New York City police officers killed a man Thursday after he had broken up a fight between two other men, insisting on placing him in a chokehold and slamming his head to the pavement, piling on top of him as he gasped for air and as he continually told the cops he couldn’t breathe.
The entire incident was caught on video from a witness who kept telling the cops that the man had not committed a crime.
There is a worthwhile discussion as to whether Garner “resisted arrest” when no underlying cause for arrest existed, other than the mundane non-compliance with commands that are escalated into a self-justifying excuse for the police to seize a human being.
Perhaps there was cause to arrest Eric Garner for loosies; perhaps not. However, I will not blindly adopt the police excuse proffered the next day in the absence of evidence to support it. Most of you have and will. I’ve seen too many facile fabrications to join you. As there was no hint of such cause when it happened, the next-day excuse will be treated as media myth here. Yet you will likely read it in every media report about Garner, as journalists are herd animals.
The video shows Pantaleo’s take-down, using what police call a chokehold, of Garner. At the outset, while Garner was non-compliant, he was also not threatening. He posed no risk of harm to any officer. Patience, like reason, however, does not appear in the Patrol Guide. Police are disinclined to wait for a non-cop to comply, or consider his pleas to be left alone. Once they command, they demand compliance, and they will use force to obtain it whether it is legally justified or not. That, in the minds of cops and courts, is for someone to figure out later.
The question of whether Pantaleo’s “wrestling move that he was taught at the police academy” was the prohibited chokehold is not in issue, even though viewers of the video might think it’s up to them to decide. Legally, the issue was settled when the medical examiner determined the death to be a homicide. On the more practical level, the issue would be addressed at a trial, where experts for both sides could battle, explain their positions, and try to persuade the jury whether the hold was benign or deadly.
That it resulted in death counts. That Garner was obese, asthmatic and had high blood pressure is part of the calculus, but human beings invariably come with their frailties. It’s an inherent part of the determination that police must make when using force, particularly when their use of force isn’t mandated by the threat of harm against them. The law doesn’t presume people against whom force is used to be in perfect health, particularly when it’s clearly observable that Garner was obese.
At ATL Redline, Elie Mystal asserts a very serious point:
And Eric Garner’s death was caught on video in broad freaking daylight. Don’t you get it, white cops are allowed to kill black people. It’s legal for them to do so. How is a body camera going to change that?
The video of Garner’s killing serves to resolve many questions, many claims that would have arisen in the absence of video. It shows that he did not engage in violence toward the police. It shows that he did not attempt to flee. Much of the manufactured controversy surrounding the Michael Brown killing, the speculation that has grown into immutable excuses, are removed from the discussion.
And yet, the result was the same. Daniel Pantaleo, despite the video conclusively showing him to be the perpetrator of a homicide, will not be charged with any crime in New York.
This is not the fault of video. This is the fault of a systemic favoritism toward police. This is the fault of fundamental bias supporting law enforcement, which causes people to seek out benign explanations that confirm their view of law enforcement as good, or at least better than criminals.
And this is the fault of racism. As Corey Rayburn Yung offers, there are a series of videos showing police harming and killing minorities with impunity. This is not to suggest that police will not, do not, engage in the same rank use of force against whites as well; indeed, of all the colors that impact police decision-making, blue is by far the most important. But that people of color suffer harm disproportionately, for a variety of reasons, none of them acceptable, cannot be ignored.
Yet, while Elie is right that the video of Eric Garner being killed by Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo did not stop the killing, nor even produce a prosecution after the Staten Island prosecutor managed the problem, it was not without value. The video allows all of us to see what happened without the overlay of banal cop excuses that would have wiped this killing from our minds, if it even reached that point.
Without a video, there could have been a press conference, sparsely attended, to announce the sad death of a Staten Island man, whose name only his family and friends would remember, who died after resisting arrest, with its implicit suggestion of violence, because of his poor health. The announcement might have included mention of how brave Officer Pantaleo had to be treated for the injuries suffered in the course of the takedown, and would certainly have mentioned every arrest and conviction of the deceased and all members of his family.
It’s not much. It’s not good enough. But video gave us more than we had before. Without it, Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo might have gotten a commendation, perhaps even a medal, for his bravery in the fight to save society from the vicious Eric Garner. This doesn’t quite refute Elie’s point, but it serves to remind us that this is one tool in the search for reality. But only one.