Stephen Gottlieb: Killing Garner
Are we safer with or without the police around? When juries, grand juries and prosecutors regularly decide that plain, on camera, evidence doesn’t show murder, what protects people?
It’s too dangerous to put your key in your front door like AmadouDiallo a few years ago. It took 41 bullets to meet that threat and shoot him in the back. It’s too dangerous to hold your hands up like Michael Brown in Ferguson – hands up can be interpreted as threatening. It’s too darn dangerous to complain “I can’t breathe” like Eric Garner – we know from sexual politics that people understand “I can’t” to mean “I can!” On camera they could see just how dangerous a man can be when he can’t breathe. And any Black kid with a toy gun is toast.
The police talk about bad officers. Most are not looking for a chance to show just how tough they can be toward inoffensive or defenseless people. But don’t let the so-called good cops off easily when there are no repercussions, when the “good cops” stand with the “bad cops” because it’s a dangerous job, so that there are no enforceable rules of behavior toward civilians and anything the police do goes but nothing civilians do – especially if they’re African-American. The culture of silence gives us no reason for confidence. No firings, no powers for civilian review boards, plus judges and prosecutors who stand by the cops regardless, like the judge who told me he believed my client but found him guilty because “I couldn’t do that to the police.” Are those who stand-up-for-the-cops-no-matter-what any better than the Romans who liked to watch Christians thrown to lions?
Black families have “the conversation” with their kids about how to deal with the police. Actually I’m also better off when I don’t argue with the police, don’t claim to know my rights. Most of my clients were Black. I gave them the same advice plus keep quiet and politely ask for an attorney.
Apologists for the police have used the conversation to say it was Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s fault that they were killed. They should have done what they were told. Then they wouldn’t be dead. But so what? I teach my law students that they should not expect their clients to know what to do and what they need to tell their lawyers. The lawyers are the professionals. The lawyers are trained. The lawyers must expect themselves to shape the encounter usefully and help the clients do what needs to be done.
It is a lot too simple and too self-satisfying to blame the victim. The Americans ISIS beheaded shouldn’t have been there if they knew what was good for them but that gave ISIS no excuse to behead them. Some women might not have been raped if they made themselves look ugly but that’s no excuse to rape them. I took part in a rape case where a young man was charged with raping an older, shriveled charwoman – not looking pretty doesn’t necessarily protect women. But no matter, none of them, pretty or ugly, young or old, should have been raped. It doesn’t help to blame the victim. Blaming Brown and Garner and Diallo and the 12 year old kid doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – none of them did anything that justified execution. Do we have to take the guns out of their hands to convince the police to use their heads?
On Eric Garnder’s death, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/officer-told-grand-jury-he-meant-no-harm-to-eric-garner.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.®ion=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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