Commentary: The Lessons of Eric Garner

Keith Boykin

Commentary: The Lessons of Eric Garner

Protesters want real change. Now.

Published December 4, 2014

It was 45 years ago this morning when a dozen Chicago police officers burst into the apartment of 21-year-old Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton, firing nearly 100 shots that killed Hampton and a colleague, 22-year-old Mark Clark, while they slept.

An official investigation debunked police claims that Hampton died in a back-and-forth shootout and police officers were indicted. Despite a $1.85 million settlement to the victims' families, the police were cleared of all criminal charges.

Black America's suspicion toward law enforcement has a long history. In the nearly five decades since cops killed Fred Hampton, African-Americans have complained about the police shootings and beatings of Eleanor Bumpurs, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Tanesha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and thousands of other cases.

Those complaints were often dismissed by white society and the media, who were all too willing to accept the official police version of events. They dismissed our cries even when the official stories differed from the evidence. And they dismissed the significance of the problem even when a study released last year found that a Black person is killed every 28 hours by law enforcement, a security guard or a vigilante.

Each controversial shooting or beating produced a new round of solutions. Better police training. More "community policing." Expanded diversity in law enforcement. More data collection by the FBI. Dash cameras for police cars. Body cameras for officers. Ban chokeholds. Reform the grand jury system. Appoint special prosecutors. And yet none of these solutions, some of which have actually been implemented, will change the basic equation.

That's because the problem is not technology; it's psychology. It's the systemic, dehumanizing mentality that sees Black people as inherently suspicious, that exaggerates our size and our age, that attributes superhuman abilities to our physical stature, and envisions us less capable of pain and suffering. This could explain why cops waited seven minutes to give treatment to Eric Garner as he lay handcuffed and lifeless on the concrete sidewalk, or why officers in Ferguson blocked a nurse who wanted to aid Michael Brown, or why Cleveland police left 12-year-old Tamir Rice bleeding on the grass for four minutes without helping him.

America's civil rights laws of the 1960s prohibited overt discrimination but left in place the vestiges of state-sanctioned prejudice, racial discrimination and white supremacy. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio acknowledged as much on Wednesday in response to the anger felt in our communities. "Let's be clear," he said, "this is not based on decades of racism, this is based on centuries of racism."

"We treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through," Chris Rock said in a recent interview. "Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people."

This helps explain why most proposed solutions to police brutality don't go far enough. They attempt to work within the system to build a better façade without dismantling the racist foundation that supports the system. But even with a coroner's conclusion that Eric Garner's death was a homicide and video evidence showing the officer using a banned chokehold, a grand jury voted not to indict the officer who killed him.

As Audre Lorde warned us, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change." If we change our policies without changing our attitudes and our systems, the public will continue to accept tired justifications for police killings that the victim was "no angel," resisted arrest or made a threatening move, and defenders of the police will continue to try to divert our attention toward the arbitrarily-constructed category of "Black-on-Black crime."

Nearly all crime is committed by perpetrators of the same race as the victim, but the greatest threat to any community is unpunished crime, not intraracial crime. When Blacks are killed by other Blacks, police make an arrest and charge someone. That rarely happens when cops kill Black people. That's why it's not helpful to change the "Black Lives Matter" mantra to the more general "All Lives Matter," which ignores the specific history of police mistreatment of African-Americans.

Over the past few months, I've walked with protesters in Ferguson, New York and Washington, D.C. Many of them are outraged by our criminal justice system and angry at politicians from both parties. I don't think they'll be satisfied with more studies and commissions. I don't hear them using ambiguous buzzwords like "reform" and "training" as a solution. I think they want something bigger. Deeper. More comprehensive. They want real change. Now.

 Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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