A License to Kill Black Men

Lee A. Daniels

By Lee A. Daniels
NNPA Columnist

From nearly the moment he was attacked by a New York City police officer July 18, the world has, via that chilling video, watched Eric Garner die.

Are we now about to see the “traditions” that led to his death and – thus far – have enabled his killer to escape justice die, too?

Moments after the news broke Dec. 3 that a New York City grand jury had voted not to indict the White police officer whom video showed had jumped Eric Garner from behind, ridden him to the sidewalk pavement and lain on his back while Garner, breath­ing heavily, frantically ut­tered “I can’t breathe!” Nearly a dozen times, Gar­ner’s stepfather spoke these bitter words: “It’s just a li­cense to kill a Black man!”

Yes. That’s what such decisions in the past meant – the reaffirmation of the longstanding ‘tradition’ that police officers, espe­cially White ones, who kill unarmed Black men, or women or children in ques­tionable circumstances do not get indicted. Or, if in­dicted, they do not get con­victed. That’s because the ‘traditional’ stance Ameri­can police departments, North as well as South, have taken toward Black Americans has always been to control them, not protect them.

The issue that Eric Gar­ner’s death – and all the police killings of Black Americans in questionable circumstances – has now made unavoidable is how to eliminate these two “tra­ditions” from the practice of policing.

Daniel M. Donovan, Jr., the District Attorney of Staten Island, the city bor­ough where Garner lived and was killed (Staten Is­land is the most conser­vative and least diverse borough of the city’s five boroughs; separated from the mainland by water, ac­cessible only by ferry and bridges), couldn’t afford to allow the grand jury (grand juries are under the com­plete control of prosecu­tors) to indict the officer – and thus send the case to a jury trial – because the vid­eo of Eric Garner’s death is so damning. So he engaged the old tradition to produce a grand jury decision that showed the jurors had liter­ally refused to act on what their eyes and common sense made plain.

Even some conservatives denounced the grand jury decision as a gross miscar­riage of justice. Other con­servatives, of course, stuck to the old tattered script that Blacks must always be blamed for their op­pression. Among them was Charles Barkley, who’s be­come embarrassingly eager to use his basketball fame to become conservatives’ latest “Magic Negro.”

But the shock and anger that the decision imme­diately provoked may yet lead to undermining the tradition that lets cops who kill unjustifiably escape responsibility for their ac­tions.

One reason for this hope is the recent tragic and in­furiating series of police killing, wounding or ac­costing unarmed Black Americans in question­able circumstances. Those tragedies were shockingly underscored by two police killings that bracketed the decision of the Ferguson, Mo. grand jury not to in­dict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

The first was the killing of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old New Yorker, who, leav­ing a friend’s apartment in a New York City housing project, happened to step into its unlit stairway at the moment a rookie New York City cop was was standing 14 steps above him – with, police officials have said, his gun drawn for no ap­parent reason. As soon as Gurley opened the door to the stairway, the cop fired, killing him.

The second incident was a Cleveland police officer’s shooting to death 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing in his neighbor­hood’s playground while waving a realistic-looking toy gun. The cop, whom of­ficial police records show shot the boy two seconds after arriving at the park, was later found to have compiled a record of seri­ous emotional instability at his previous police-force job that should have dis­qualified him for police work anywhere.

That the Cleveland police force has a host of prob­lems that reach far beyond this one officer was the sub­ject of a scathing study of its practices the federal De­partment of Justice released last week as well. It de­clared that the department’s effectiveness and reputa­tion were undermined by a pattern of “excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons” and the “employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force be­comes inevitable.”

There’s been significant recent evidence that Whites and Latinos, too, don’t completely escape being physically brutalized by in­dividual cops, either, while their superiors look the oth­er way. But now the greater visibility of incidents of un­justifiable police violence against blacks and of re­ports which find it’s driven by an institutional culture as well as individuals’ pa­thologies should make one thing obvious: it’s time for the “two traditions” to end.

Lee A. Daniels is a long­time journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”