Recently, in New York City, a man named Eric Garner was strangled to death on the street by police. It was all caught on video. It was a nightmare sequence that made me think of George Orwell’s description of the future in 1984: a boot stamping on a human face, forever.
Eric Garner was black. The policeman who choked him to death was white.
Some people want to make this horror about race. I find myself wishing they were right – that just once, the racial grievance peddlers weren’t basically making up inflammatory crap that canonizes thug trash like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Because as bad as violent racism is, I’m afraid that what actually killed Eric Garner was something far worse.
The truly terrifying thing about Eric Garner’s death is that I don’t think the cops in that video hated anybody. They were just doing their job. And their job included strangling a man to death for having sold “loosies” – untaxed cigarettes. Something he wasn’t doing when he was killed; he had just broken up a fight that the police came to investigate.
Garner had just broken up a fight. The police hassled him, based on his record as a (gasp!) vendor of untaxed cigarettes, and when he protested the force of law came down on him and snuffed him.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a book called Democracy In America that has been justly celebrated for its perception about the young American republic ever since. In it, he warned of the dangers of what he called “soft despotism” – that “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules”, all justified in soothing ways to achieve worthy objectives. Such as discouraging people from smoking by heavily taxing cigarettes.
Eric Garner died in a New York minute because “soft despotism” turned hard enough to kill him in cold blood. There was no anger there, no hate; the police simply failed to grasp the moral disproportion between the “crimes” he wasn’t even committing at the time and their use of force. And an investigating grand jury did no better.
Violent racists, as evil as they are, generally understand on some level that they’re doing wrong. That understanding is written all over the excuses they make. These cops didn’t need an excuse. They were doing their job. They were enforcing the law. The casual, dispassionate, machinelike brutality with which Garner was strangled reveals a moral vacuum more frightening than mere racism could ever be.
Every one of the soft despots who passed that law should be arraigned for the murder of Eric Garner. They directed the power of the state to frivolous ends, forgetting – or worse, probably not caring – that the enforcement of those “small complicated rules” depends on the gun, the truncheon, and the chokehold. In a truly just universe they would be strangled and their bodies buried under Garner’s, pour encourager les autres.
But we are all accessories before the fact. Because we elected them. We ceded them the power to pass oh, so many well-intentioned laws, criminalizing so much behavior that one prominent legal analyst has concluded the average American commits three inadvertent felonies a day.
That could be you on that New York sidewalk. De Tocqueville thought that what prevented soft despotism in America was “habits of the heart” – the dignified refusal of Americans to submit to petty tyrannies, and their vigilance against the habits of mind that lead to oppression.
Eric Garner’s death calls us to renew that vigilence. To demand that the force of law only be deployed against crimes that are actual crimes – that is, identifiable wrongs committed against identifiable victims, in which the moral costs and risks of enforcement are not greater than the harm.