Suffocating Justice: The New York Daily News's cartoonist, Bill Bramhall, captures the shock and dismay of liberal America at the frightening implications of a New York Grand Jury's refusal to indict those responsible for the homicide of Eric Garner.
“I CAN’T BREATHE!” Who could hear those words and not respond? What sort of police officer, effecting the arrest of an unarmed black man by placing him in an illegal chokehold, could hear that anguished cry and refuse to lessen his grip?
The first part of the answer is, quite simply: a person who has never learned how to look at a black person and see a human-being. The second: a police officer who understands that, if the deceased is a black man, then his arresting officer/s will never be made accountable for his death.
Racism, and the informal legal protection afforded to racist police officers by America’s Grand Jury system, is what makes the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, like Eric Garner, inevitable. In spite of the fact that the NYPD officer responsible for Mr Garner’s death had a record of “racial bias”; and regardless of the fact that the whole outrageous incident was recorded on a witness’s cellphone; a Grand Jury composed of “ordinary” New Yorkers declined to press charges.
The widespread protests that followed the Grand Jury’s decision have made headlines around the world. Less visible, however, was the counter-protest of a group of female primary school teachers against their union’s condemnation of Mr Garner’s death. These women, all of them white and all wearing an “I support the NYPD” t-shirt, took a photograph of themselves and posted it on Facebook. They were all employees of a public school with African-American and Hispanic children on the student roll.
Racist to the Core: Teachers from Public School 220, Queens, New York, indicate the value they place on the life of a Black father of six.
What shocked liberal Americans was not only the nature of the counter-protesters’ profession – these were teachers, for God’s sake! – but also their absolute and deeply disturbing ordinariness.
Presented to the public gaze were not the angular, lock-jawed matriarchs of some 1960s Mississippi backwater staring malevolently into the lens of a photojournalist from Life magazine. No, these were “Soccer Moms” from Queens. Gals next door. The sort of friendly, fresh-faced suburbanites Americans bump into every day at the super-market. The “lovely women” encountered several times a year at parent-teacher evenings. The trained professionals who teach their kids!
Racists to the core.
The teachers’ Facebook posting produced the same jarring effect as photographs taken at lynchings during the 1920s and 30s. Surrounding the charred remains of the lynch-mob’s Black victims were, typically, scores of perfectly “normal” white people (and their children!) who had turned out to watch the “fun”. The bland, smiling faces of the female staff of New York City Public School No. 220 offered a visual echo of those dreadful images from 90 years ago. They bear grim testimony to a white community every bit as oblivious to its complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.
Faces At A Lynching: "Ordinary" people utterly oblivious to their complicity in racial injustice and exemplary violence.
The example of New York’s, Eric Garner, like the example of Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown, and countless others before them, has exposed the extent to which African-Americans remain the despised “Other” of United States’ Society. Many other ethnicities have had to endure the scorn of America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. But, while the Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews eventually found their hyphenated niche within the American Dream, African-Americans remain, overwhelmingly, on the outside looking in.
Can anyone honestly say that the extreme animus directed towards the presidency of Barack Obama owes nothing to his colour? That the Tea Party’s extraordinary political traction among elderly white Americans has nothing to do with a Black President’s determination to admit African-American and Hispanic citizens into full membership of the national family? That the relentless arithmetic of demographic change, which points to White Americans falling below 50 percent of the population within the lifetimes of children living today, has not reignited the same primal fears that spawned the intractable racial violence of the Deep South?
Those of us who remember the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s also recall the central role Southern law enforcement played in the enforcement of racial segregation and the maintenance of white power. Southern county sheriffs and local police departments had always provided the front-line troops of Dixie’s racial war. On the rare occasions Southern police officers were charged with offences against African-Americans, Southern juries inevitably voted for acquittal.
The fate of Eric Garner points to the “Dixiefication” of the whole of the United States. The same racialization of poverty and powerlessness that characterised the Deep South has migrated both North and West. The same fetishisation of skin pigmentation as the crucial determinant of one’s place in the social hierarchy now infects even that last, great bastion of liberal influence, the teaching profession. And, finally, the near universal contracting-out of the practical business of racial oppression to local law enforcement is leading thoughtful Americans to the grim conclusion that, in the long-run, it is the South that won the Civil War.
America, herself, will soon be gasping: “I can’t breathe!”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 December 2014.