A mourner places a candle at a memorial for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while being arrested by New York City police, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in New York. Demonstrators gathered at a park Tuesday, near where police attempted to arrest Garner, 43, on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes.
The final words the late Eric Garner spoke as he was being choked to death by some of New York City’s finest on a late July afternoon captures much about life in modern America. “I can’t breathe,” he gasped over and over, as if the pile of cops on top of him and the one with the vice grip on his throat would somehow relent if they knew he was slowly dying from their tender mercies.
To them, he was just a problem to be solved and a box to be ticked. That not one of them tried to stop what was happening, or show much in the way of remorse for what they did, shows what they really thought of him: He was never really human — just something to control and regulate, discipline and punish.
Indeed, add in the video record of the encounter between Garner and the police, and his eventual extra-judicial murder is chilling. The crime that Garner is supposed to have committed is not at all clear, beyond perhaps loitering and selling “loosies,” slang for single, untaxed cigarettes. In the video, Garner is, of course, upset with the police, who are seemingly hassling him for — at most — a marginal matter that should not require a heavy police presence or response. Why such an alleged violation of the law is something one has to be arrested for instead of, say, being ticketed, is also unclear. That the violent police response that led to Mr. Garner’s death was not just completely unacceptable but also a crime is also clear to everyone except, unfortunately, the people on that Staten Island grand jury.
Yet, for all the outrageousness of the miscarriage of justice that has occurred in this case so far, it’s something to be expected, isn’t it? Garner and his fate at the hand of some bullies in blue represents more than just yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. Garner’s death is symptomatic of a larger problem in American society in which those who have little in the way of power, influence and wealth are systematically pushed around, bullied and harmed by a system that is rigged in every way against them.
A system designed to fail most of the people in it
Actually, the system worse than rigged — it is set up to systematically exploit and disenfranchise them in nearly every way.
This is most obvious in the operation of our criminal justice system, which has been repeatedly shown to systematically target men of color, in particular. It is also quite merciless, however, to those poorer whites who also get caught up in its icy embrace. If whites are less often thrown into the hungry maw of America’s prison-industrial complex, it’s more due to the fact that the system is less deliberately focused on them than it is on the neighborhoods of poor minorities. But, once within it poor whites are just as lacking in the way of recourse and just as unlikely to see real justice in the event of police or prosecutorial misconduct. The recent example of the teen from Texas who got off on a vehicular manslaughter charge after killing four people while drunk driving due to the fact that he was effectively “too rich” to serve prison time is a case in point with a clear message: If you are poor you are screwed, but if you are rich you can beat the system.
Examples of this principle are legion, of course. Recall again the alleged crime that Eric Garner committed: selling loosies on the street that weren’t subject to tax. Now consider that rich Americans and powerful corporations typically game the system in questionable paper-chase versions of loosie sales day-after-day, to the point that some companies pay no taxes at all and wealthy people like Warren Buffet have lower tax rates than their secretaries.
Why is it that a man like Garner can be harassed by the police, even killed by them, while those who engaged in mortgage fraud on a vast scale on Wall Street walk the streets free and untouched? Why aren’t the trigger- and chokehold-happy police forces targeting these corporate and wealthy criminals instead?
We know why, of course: The systematic domination of our political system by the rich and large, powerful monied interests. It’s a cliché by now, but it has been proven time and again that average people have no influence in how America operates on the ground. Indeed, it’s been demonstrated empirically in rigorous scholarly studies that unless average people agree completely with the rich, their interests will not be heard by those inhabiting the hallways of Washington and our 50 state capitals. When the opinions of average people and the rich do differ, the average people are ignored entirely and it is always and at all times the wealthy who get listened to.
Benefitting a few at the expense of many
Put simply: The vast majority of Americans have little in the way of control over their government and this is reflected both at home and abroad.
Abroad, of course, we see our country spending billions and billions on useless wars overseas that do little to protect us and much to weaken and impoverish us. Public opinion polls state time and again that Americans want less involvement overseas, less war and less entanglement in the conflicts of others, yet we see more money and more lives being thrown down rat holes in the Middle East to little effect. Hundreds of billions are spent not just on these wars, but on entire weapons systems like the F-35 or the Navy’s worthless littoral combat ship. It is criminal how much is spent on these things, and the military contractors who build and service these worthless wonder weapons often engage in immoral and sometimes illegal acts in order to win contracts and increase profits.
Meanwhile, at home we see an economy that is more unequal than ever, with more and more wealth going to the very top of the income spectrum. Middle income wages have been stagnant for more than a generation and now it looks like they may actually be falling. Census data confirms that young people today are less well-paid than their parents, despite being much more educated. These young people are also being crushed by student loan debt — outrageous given that the Federal Reserve was literally giving money away to the corrupt and incompetent banks that near ruined the country in 2008.
What’s more, instead of aiding the situation, the government has made it worse by focusing its taxing and spending priorities toward the rich and the elderly rather than the young and the poor.
If one takes the big picture view, Eric Garner’s murder by cops for the crime of selling loosies on the street is symbolic of one America — rich, old, white and politically powerful — strangling the lifeblood out of the emerging “majority-minority” country that is a demographic certainty in a few decades. Like the cop who choked out Mr. Garner, our corrupt, unjust and unbalanced system is crushing the life out of the economy for everyday working people, who are increasingly falling behind and becoming ever more insecure as time goes on.
In fact, the police who so callously took this poor man’s life and the rigged economy that is smothering young people today are just different faces of the same system that is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the many. It’s not just Eric Garner who can’t breathe, but all of us who don’t count for much by those who do.