Last night and this morning I have been mostly encouraged by the reactions I’ve seen to the Eric Garner case, and specifically by those from friends who are not people of color. I am especially grateful for the responses by leaders in my own denomination, including Russ Moore, Danny Akin, and Al Mohler, as well as by other evangelicals. I am perplexed and discouraged, though, by those who still want to argue that there’s “nothing to see here.” I have heard and seen people argue, for instance, that Garner had broken the law and was resisting arrest (and therefore police were justified in their actions), that the officers did nothing wrong in their handling of the situation, and/or that race wasn’t a factor.
This is troubling to me for a number of reasons. First, in watching the video (if you haven’t watched it we have nothing to talk about until you do), two things are readily apparent. In the first place, if we all have the right facts, Mr. Garner is being questioned about selling loose cigarettes illegally. If this is true, why are there at least 7 armed police officers at the scene, a scene which involves an unarmed man and a crime that has more to do with retailers smuggling thousands upon thousands of illegal cigarettes into the state than it does with a man selling a few loose sticks on the street? Granted, if Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then there are consequences. But we need to ask ourselves whether or not one man selling a few loose cigarettes warrants the presence of 7 armed police officers. More importantly, in the video it is apparent that Mr. Garner is pleading for the officers to let him go his own way. Again, if there was evidence at the scene that Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then he theoretically should be arrested. But I would ask you this: how many of you have, when caught for speeding or (if you’re going really fast) reckless driving, haven’t plead with an officer to let you go? How many of you, in requesting that the officer let you go, haven’t done so with gusto or emotion or even anger? Maybe you’re angry or sad or emotional because “everyone else gets way with it,” or maybe it’s because you know the ticket you’ll receive will break your family’s bank, or maybe it’s because you genuinely felt you weren’t doing anything wrong. Whatever the reason, calling that “resisting arrest”, as I’ve seen some people do in Garner’s case, is, in my mind, unfathomable. Garner was talking. Garner was pleading. Whether he did anything illegal or not, it’s highly questionable to me to call his pleading “resisting arrest.” And when the officer comes from behind, seemingly unbeknownst to Mr. Garner, it’s unprovoked and without warning. What is clear from the video, then, is that there appears to be an excessive amount of police presence (which would get anyone amped up) and that Mr. Garner was in pleading, not “resisting arrest.”
A second reason I am troubled by some reactions I’ve seen is because they assume that, in this instance, the police officers are completely justified in the way they handled the situation. This relates to the previous point, but there is more to it. Not only was Garner not resisting arrest or threatening the officers at hand, he was subdued using an illegal take down, one that has been outlawed since 1993 in NYC. We cannot with any certainty judge Officer Pantaleo’s motives, but by the video it appears we can say that his take down method was illegal and has been illegal for over 20 years. Furthermore, the coroner ruled it a homicide. Why, then, is there no grand jury indictment?
This brings me to the final issue, which is probably the largest in most people’s minds. I’ve thankfully heard many call for more conversation on race and social injustice in our country, but I have also seen and heard some say that race isn’t an issue in this case (or in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc.). There are two problems for me here. The first specifically concerns Eric Garner, and it is that Officer Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, had previously been sued on two separate occasions for racially motivated actions while on duty. To say that race wasn’t an issue ignores Officer Pantaleo’s past and also the presence of 7 armed officers in the face of a minor crime by an unarmed man. (It also ignores the fact that a militarized police force showed up at peaceful protests in Ferguson.)
A second problem with the argument that denies the race element is that, whatever you think about specific cases, our African-American brothers and sisters, who bear the image of God and, if they are believers, are united with us by the Holy Spirit in Christ, are telling us that there is something wrong. How can we possibly ignore their cries of oppression and injustice? This is exactly what God calls us to do as the church – help the poor and oppressed as we seek to share Christ with the nations! This does not mean we have to buy into every narrative that the media or populist leaders give us, but it does mean, especially in the context of the body of Christ, that we need to *listen*. The gospel calls us “one new man in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:15), and this applies not only to Jews and Gentiles but to black and white, Hispanic and Asian, etc. We who have not had the same experiences in our upbringing should not be so ready to dismiss the cries of our brothers and sisters who have a (many times radically) different life experience than ours, and we should also not ignore the fact that the gospel speaks to issues of race and ethnicity.
May God give us the grace to be quick listen and slow to speak, so that when we do speak we speak with love, truth, and grace.