What the Defenders of Police Violence Defend

From blogs to CNN, from bars to barbershops, the past days have seen the rise of view that calls for justice for Eric Garner are somehow more compelling than those for Michael Brown. The “murky” details of the Brown case contrast with the long and gruesome video of Garner’s killing. Even prominent conservatives, from Charles Krauthammer to Bill O’Reilly, allow that the Garner case troubles them, though not that of Brown.

The protesting seems to television correspondents to be better in New York as well. The supposedly extreme violence of the community response to the non-indictment in the Brown case hardens into a tale that ignores the spectacular practice of militant nonviolence over many now months in Ferguson and St, Louis. Missouri becomes the bad counterpoint to the alleged sophistication and “restraint on both sides” in New York. That the tactical innovations of the Missouri movement informed what could be imagined in New York City gets lost in the shuffle.

The stark differences in media portrayals of the cases of and of the movements surrounding Brown and Garner will almost surely narrow. As leaks attempt to undermine the force of the video, troubled conservatives will likely return the ask-no-questions fold regarding Garner’s death. If the Department of Justice refuses to indict in the New York case as well as the Missouri one, a broad swathe of liberal opinion will also lose concern. If the movement in New York can sustain its rolling occupation of public places, the coming police violence will remind us that urbane New York is the state of the murderous attacks on Attica prison
jpegprotesters and the city of fierce police raids on Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement, and immigrants.

Thinking more seriously about the police murders of Brown and Garner together yields critical insights. In the days after the Brown grand jury decision protests raced from city to city. The media usually saw them as being about solidarity with Ferguson. And so they gloriously were. However, they also spread because in each city where they occurred police violence had left its own bloody trail. That the closure of Lake Shore Drive by Ferguson protesters in Chicago can be reported on without reference to the reign of falsification and police torture conducted by the recently convicted Jon Burge and others indexes the poverty of U.S. journalism.

When New York marchers closed the FDR Expressway over the Ferguson decision, and before the Garner one, they of course had in mind the cases of Garner and of the unarmed Brooklyn resident Akai Gurley, killed by police this November. Going further back some mourned death and torture in the cases of Sean Bell, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Nicholas Heyward, Jr., Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, and many others. As inspiring as it was that activists came to St. Louis to support justice for Michael Brown it has mattered equally that the sustained energy of young African American activists in Ferguson reanimated movements against police brutality across the nation and to some extent the world.

Finally and most importantly thinking about the Brown and Garner murders together offers a way to get beyond the “who was more innocent” narrative pushed in the media. The video in the Garner case bears on the Brown one. Its presence shows what prosecutors and police are eager to defend and the slant they bring in approaching a fatal encounter between police and an African American. Despite what the video clearly showed, the same defenses of police conduct by the same people occurred in both instances. The very CNN talking heads charged with taking seriously the contention of the pro-police St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch that all evidence led to non-indictment in the Brown case did not linger long over the fact that video evidence did exist in the Garner case.

The Democratic politician and St. Louis Police Officers Association bureaucrat Jeff Roorda, himself fired as a policeman in 1997 after being charged with filing a false report, did double duty. He argued that the police side of the case against probable case had been proven in the Brown case. In the Garner case Roorda became an instant expert exonerating the officer despite the visual evidence and medical examiner’s report establishing probable cause that a crime had been committed.

Roorda recently held that McCulloch rightly only went through the motions of a grand jury procedure, knowing that Darren Wilson was innocent in Brown’s death. He further implied that the prosecutor of the Garner murder in Staten Island did the same proper thing. This judgment, made at the junction of white supremacist common sense and police and prosecutor’s office common sense, defines the problem. It also underlines the utility of thinking deeply about what the Garner case has to teach us about the Brown case.

David Roediger is the author of the recently released Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All.


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David Roediger‘s latest book is Class, Race and Marxism (Verso).

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