Civil Liberties

Eric Garner's Murder Reveals the Ugly Core of Government and Law Enforcement


Eric Garner
Video screen capture

Maybe you thought Michael Brown was a less than sympathetic victim because he apparently tussled with a cop before that cop unloaded his gun into him. Not that it matters, since the deck was stacked against an indictment of Officer Darren Wilson. As Andrew Napolitano notes, "The grand jury…was subjected to the type of evidence that only trial juries hear, including a soliloquy from the cop himself and all the exculpatory evidence the prosecutor could find." The powers that be didn't take any chances in that case—they didn't want one of their enforcers seriously inconvenienced.

And they really didn't want one of their strong-arm men put out over the murder of Eric Garner. The grand jury in that case declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in what seemed a clear-cut case of over-the-top brutality. Even the Medical Examiner ruled Garner's death a "homicide."

Here we have Garner, a guy allegedly selling loosies—single cigarettes—which are a perfectly legal product. Why is he supposedly selling loosies? Because New York officials inflict on their long-suffering subjects the highest cigarette tax in the country at at $4.35 per pack, plus another $1.50 levied in the city itself. It's not a popular tax, with smuggled smokes making up 60.9 percent of the market. So the powers that be unleash the cops to enhance revenue by tracking down shipments of smuggled cigarettes and, on occasion, putting the occasional small-time street vendor in an illegal chokehold.

Which is to say, Eric Garner was murdered for the purposes of revenue enhancement.

And also, let's be clear, because when you unleash armies of thugs on the population to enforce every petty law, they're soon going to acquire an attitude. Eventually, telling a cop, "Please just leave me alone," as Garner told the cops rousting him, becomes an unacceptable act of defiance. It's interpreted as an invitation to swarm a man suspected of selling handfuls of untaxed cigarettes and wrestle him to the ground.

You want a society taxed and regulated toward your vision of perfection? It's going to need enforcers. Those enforcers are going to interact on a daily basis wth people who don't share that vision of perfection, and who resent the constant enforcement attempts. They'll push back to greater or lesser extents. And the enforcers will twist arms in return to frighten people into obedience. People will be abused and some will die.

Some of the people defying the law will carve out a niche for themselves. My great-grandfather ignored Prohibition in his speakeasy. He kept cops who didn't take the law too seriously happy with drinks and payoffs. And he kept everybody happy by defying yet another attempt by control freak officials and their busybody constituents to perfect the world through force.

I didn't turn as big a profit as my great-grandfather when I sold grass. But I knew enough to keep a police dispatcher happy. He returned the favor by tipping me off when I popped onto law enforcement radar.

Corruption, then, becomes a lubricant to the system. Paying cops off to "please just leave me alone," is a better alternative to watching armies of enforcers kill people in the streets over stupid laws.

Those enforcers aren't an equal problem for everybody. They spare the people who pay them to look the other way. They give a pass to friends and relations. But they often take a dislike to individuals or whole groups that rub them the wrong way or cause them extra grief. Poor minorities, in particular, are aways on the short end of the stick when it comes to dealing with cops. When they break petty laws, they don't often turn enough profit to grease police palms enough to be left alone, they don't have the political power to push back, and at least some of the enforcers have a hard-on for them anyway.

Government, at its core, is force. The more it does to shape the world around it, the more it needs enforcers to make sure officials' wills are done. "The law is the law," says New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but it's creatures like him who make so much damned law. And then they send the likes of Officer Daniel Pantaleo to make sure we comply. Or else they might kill us.

Reason's annual Webathon is underway! Your (tax-deductible!) gift will help Reason magazine,, and Reason TV bring the case for "Free Minds and Free Markets" to bigger and bigger audiences. For giving levels and associated swag, go here now.