The death of Eric Garner was back in the news this week when the medical examiner ruled the killing a homicide, giving more white people the opportunity to say something stupid about it. While Garner’s chokehold-related death at the hands of police has raised concerns about police harassment and abuse of power, The New York Times‘ Andrew Ross Sorkin knows who the real victims are in all of this, and they are the cops.
On this weekend’s Real Time with Bill Maher, host Bill Maher brought up the latest development in the story of “this Eric Gardner guy,” and posited that the rash of police being caught on tape using excessive force might indicate that “a lot of them like it.”
Sorkin chimed in that he couldn’t defend the police actions in these cases, but that the real tragedy here is the suffering of police public image, mainly because of all those damn video cameras that keep catching them choking people out.
“My great worry is that all of these cases would give you the sense, and impression, that no police officer is well-intentioned, I think that most of them, by the way, are, but they all sound like sociopaths, and they’re all racists. and unfortunately, that’s become, that’s a function of all the cameras that are everywhere, and all the news reports that are constant.”
There is so much wrong with what Sorkin said here, but it’s important to understand that this is not specific to him; Andrew Ross Sorkin is a financial columnist, not a crime or justice reporter, he’s not claiming expertise. He’s just a normal-assed white guy expressing several of the idiotic things that white people tell themselves about police brutality, aside from “watch the whole tape.”
First of all, there’s his implication that the video recordings and news reports are exaggerating the scope of the problem, which is a commonly-held belief among white folks. If you can even get them to believe what they are seeing, they will remain convinced that every other police brutality complaint is just a criminal trying to get over, and the ones that get caught on tape are just coincidentally the only real ones. No rational person would believe this about anything else; when you see a photo of a lightning strike, you recognize that the photo is the rare event, not the lightning strike.
The next big problem is that Sorkin, like the average white person, holds the dual belief that a. most cops are not abusive, and b. that that is good enough. On the latter point, being convinced that “most” police officers won’t choke you out if you look at them wrong is only a comfort to someone who is never going to have that kid of contact with police. Andrew Ross Sorkin is never going to be stopped and frisked. He’s never going to be hassled for standing on the street., or shot down in his driveway looking for a cigarette in his car. Is he to fear getting jumped when he makes a sudden move for his checkbook at the PBA gala?
It’s also a virtual guarantee that whatever portion of police are behaving this way, it is more than white people think, but yes, less than “most.” The Garner killing has brought into relief the stunning number of chokehold complaints against the NYPD in the last five years, but beyond that, hard national data is tough to come by. A Cato Institute report found almost 5,000 credible cases of police misconduct in 2010, with 247 of them resulting in fatalities. Whatever the numbers are, they are a Powerball ticket for Andrew Ross Sorkin, and a crapshoot for overpoliced black people.
But the point he misses, and a lot of white people miss, is that while it is certain that “most (i.e. more than 51%)” of police aren’t the guy who choked Eric Garner to death, almost all of them are this guy:
“The ME’s report indicates that Mr. Garner was a man with serious health problems so there will have to be a complete and thorough analysis of all the factors that played a part in this tragedy. We believe, however, that if he had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred.” – PBA President Pat Lynch
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith had to apologize and serve a suspension for urging women not to provoke violence, but that is the exact conversation that every good black parent has with their kids regarding the cops. I’ve had it with my kids, and they’re white. The potential for police to escalate any situation is evident in the Eric Garner video, and it is not necessarily race-specific; what are race specific are the racist policing policies that are standard practice in this country, and the relentless campaign to normalize the view that black people, particularly men, are a de facto threat. My white kids are less likely to have this sort of contact with police, and the cops are significantly less likely to flip out if one of them recoils at being manhandled.
Finally, and most importantly, it is the belief that Eric Garner’s life is less important than maintaining public loyalty to the police that enables this behavior to continue. No one thinks that all cops are bad, but it is only the people who interact with them constantly who seem to really care that any of them are bad. The rest of us can tut at this video, and feel better about all the “retraining” that’s about to happen, and get back to our Netflix queue. That will never change as long as our media is dominated by people who have a common frame of reference that doesn’t include the constant threat of abuse by police. This is why diversity matters.