NYPD, Eric Garner, and America’s Original Home-Grown Terrorism: Lynching by Another Name is Still Lynching
Written by Serie McDougal
The Master’s Language
The pioneering Black Psychologist Dr. Bobby Wright once made the statement that “Lynching by Another Name is Still Lynching.” The history of lynching helps us understand the killing of Eric Garner whose life was taken when a New York City Police officer put him in an illegal choke hold on a Staten Island street last week. Lynching involves murdering a person by mob action without a lawful trial. Like many years ago, today, those who perpetrate such actions (Law Enforcement and Media) have developed several tactics in the wake of incidents of police brutality (excessive force) including the use of neutral language, the isolated incident theory, the one man theory, and victimology misdirection. In the wake of the killing of Eric Garner, by the New York Police Department (NYPD), it is important for the communities of people of African ancestry to define their own experiences in their own historical context. Countless articles on Eric Garner make use of highly anesthetized language to describe what happened to him. Journalist have used phrases such as “the Death of Eric Garner,” “Garner’s Death Prompted Outrage,” or “Fallout from the Death of Eric Garner.” If we only speak of “death,” then there is no apparent perpetrator or victim. The fact is that he was “killed,” and acknowledging killing shifts the focus from his condition to the cause and the perpetrator of his death. Moreover, Garner was killed by mob action without a lawful trial. Garner was lynched, unless the police uniforms of the officers who killed him absolves them of the illegality of their tactics and the on-scene paramedics of their negligence.
The “Isolated” Incident Theory
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) African Americans are 3-times more likely to experience police force than Whites. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police report on Excessive Police Force in America, from 1995-2000, there were almost 10, 000 cases of police use of excessive force, moreover, African Americans made of 47% of them, and 84% of the abuses where committed by White officers. We also know that African Americans with darker skin, broader noses, and fuller lips are more likely to receive harsher sentences than African Americans with lighter skin, narrower noses, and thinner lips (Eberhardt, 2006). Racial discrimination and the disproportionality it produces in the criminal justice system is no secret. In fact, many have the belief that the police in many cases represent the principal of justice only in the abstract. Many people view the police as illegitimate and untrustworthy. Because of this, racist police have undermined their own ability to carry out law enforcement and have become the source of the very resentment they are confronted with. The NYPD are in no position to demand public confidence and cooperation while incessantly and predictably using excessive force and engaging in poor officer conduct. Attempts to hide behind descriptions of police killings as “isolated incidents” are easily contradicted by statistics demonstrating that these so-called isolated incidents are actually trending patterns that are occurring with remarkable consistency, regularity and escalation. They are only isolated when people refuse to look at them in the context of other incidents. In short, these incidents become isolated when people “isolate” them. The media in many cases plays a role in creating the belief that such cases are isolated incidents. Bobby Wright reminds us all of the old mental health idiom, “the greatest pathology in the world is for people to believe in something just because they wish it to be so.” Science, on the other hand, demonstrates that excessive force as an ongoing trend, and the idea of the “isolated incident” is the delusion of fools.
The One Man Theory
The FBI touts its “one man theory,” most often seen in political assassinations. The theory asserts that the sole responsibility for high profile killings is one person. However, the theory is also relevant in acts of racialized violence, especially when the victim is Black. This past week the NYPD made announcements to take such radical actions as conducting “speedy investigations,” and aggressive “reviews” of the officers’ behavior and police records of abuse. Most notably, the officer who appeared to use a choke hold has been stripped of his badge and gun, and an officer who helped hold down Mr. Garner has been placed on desk duty. Are racist police now shaking in their boots or is this a drop in the bucket with not institutional change? The officer who placed the illegal choke hold on Garner being stripped of his badge is a reason to be encouraged but not satisfied or content. This is the one man theory in action. When systemic institutional abuse occurs, law enforcement and the media institute the one man theory that one person is responsible, the abuse is not institutional, and punishing the “bad” officer will resolve the problem. Problem solved, everyone can go home now, right? This familiar, but transparent tactic is used to take attention away from the culture of violence evidenced by rising complaints of NYPD misconduct and their subsequent dismissal of those complaints.
One thing that western society has developed in order to absolve itself from responsibility for racial violence is the study of the victim. Law enforcement and media attempt to make the victim responsible for his or her own victimization. For example, “If Mr. Garner had obeyed the officers’ commands and complied with the arrest the situation would never have happened.” In fact, Black’s (1971) research points out that African Americans were more likely to be disrespectful to the police than whites. However, this is the perspective of the police, and it helps them to justify their abuses to the untrained ear. What this research does not account for is what White, Cox, and Basehart’s research shows; officers are often rude, discourteous, use profanity, racial, gender, and ethnic epithets, refuse to answer civilians legitimate questions and criticisms. African Americans often make these complaints about police. So there is a reason for the quality of interaction between African Americans and police, and it is also rooted in the history of police abuse of African American civilians. Moreover, this entire ploy is a misdirection in-and-of-itself. Attempting to place the public’s focus on the behavior of the victim is used to take attention off of the role of the perpetrator (the officers). Whether or not Jordan Davis’s music was too loud, whether or not Trayvon smoked marijuana, and whether or not Rodney King was speeding in his car does not excuse their murders. After-all, the consequences for selling cigarettes is not public killing by strangulation with no trial. If we are not talking about that, then we have been duped. If after the death of Mr. Garner, you find yourself in heated discussions about the critical nature of whether or not he was selling a cigarette, you’ve been had. Even during the late 1800’s, when Black people were lynched in large numbers, the White terrorists who did it came up with frivolous reasons such as some symbolic form or disrespect, allegations of sleeping with a White woman, achieving economic success, or just being Negroes.
If Black people allow themselves to be misdirected by the tricks of neutral language, the isolated incident ploy, the one man theory, and the victimology ruse then their abusers will have been successful at continuing their centuries long terrorist bloodletting of Black communities. Moreover, they will never be held accountable never having to discuss institution level changes such as: zero tolerance policies for police abuse, empowering community policing boards for quality of life crimes, harsher penalties for violating excessive force policies and officer conduct policies, and investigating more citizen complaints. More than anything, what the NYPD and other forces with abusive records have to worry about, is the old saying that force begets counter-force. The police who engage in this behavior have earned their entire force (deserving or undeserving) the reputations of monsters. With the blood of Eric Garner and so many of their other victims dripping from their uniforms, they cannot expect peaceful police\community relationships. Thanks to video footage, this shame is hard to hide and let blow over. In the age of social media, people will play the video of his killing over and over each time getting a glimpse into the depths of the racialized brutality that law enforcement is capable of. Anger builds and the tears well up in the eyes of those who witness the shame and the true value placed on the life of Mr. Garner and so many others who look like him. All this, followed by media and law enforcement representatives engaging in acrobatic distortions of reality to justify or excuse the actions. All of these things make it difficult for people to respond to the notion of an “officer friendly” with anything other than hysterical laughter. The taking of an individual badge is not enough. Law enforcement should learn from the Vatican that well-intended work will be overlooked when it is accompanied by unchecked systemic and ongoing abuse.
Eberhardt, J. L., Davies, P. G., Purdie-Vaughns, V. J., & Johnson, S. I. (2006). Looking deathworthy: perceived stereotypicality of Black defendants predicts capital-sentencing outcomes. Psychological Science, 17 (5), 383-386.
Black, D. (1971). The social organization of arrest 23 Stan. L. Rev. 1087 at 1106 [Black, "Social Organization"]; Egon Bittner, "The Police on Skid-Row: A Study of Peace Keeping" (1967) 32 American Sociological Review 699 - 702.