A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.
Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.
I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.
He’d been selling loose cigarettes.
In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.
I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.
Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.
Who killed Eric Garner? We did.