Police Abuse

The Last Words of Eric Garner

The ultimate political litmus test

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Eric Garner's final words may be the ultimate political litmus test:

That's the statement of a man who was being choked figuratively long before he was choked literally. He is asserting his dignity, and then he's being killed for it. Commentators have seen a host of social problems in Garner's death: the impunity of abusive cops, the literally lethal consequences of criminalizing so much nonviolent behavior, the ways the effects of both that impunity and that criminalization fall more heavily on blacks than on whites. And they're right on all those counts. But underlying all that is something more primal and universal. Eric Garner died because he decided to demand what should be the first right of any human being in a decent society: the right to peacefully live your life without being molested.

Or that's how it seems to me, and to vast swaths of Americans across the ideological spectrum. But there are other people out there, crawling through hundreds of comment threads, Facebook debates, and Twitter wars, all asking variations of the same question: Why didn't he just submit?

Some of those people have newspaper columns. Here's Bob McManus in The New York Post:

Eric Garner and Michael Brown had much in common, not the least of which was this: On the last day of their lives, they made bad decisions. Epically bad decisions.

Each broke the law—petty offenses, to be sure, but sufficient to attract the attention of the police.

And then—tragically, stupidly, fatally, inexplicably—each fought the law.

The Post ran that under the headline "Blame only the man who tragically decided to resist." And part of that is true: He did decide to resist. It's right there in his final words. Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today.

There lies the litmus test. There are people who think Eric Garner's resistance means that he's to blame for how he died. And then there are those of us who think that just might be the most horrifying possible lesson anyone could draw from this terrible story.

Eric Garner, 1970-2014