That’s what I saw as I watched Eric Garner’s slow-motion death played over and over again on video. Never have seen anything like it in life—a stone-cold killing in front of my very own eyes. I thought of an old blues song, one from the convict chain-gang days when Southern Blacks were routinely sentenced to hard labor on the railroad: “I asked the judge what could be my fine, I asked the judge what could be my fine?” The response: “Twenty-one years on the Rocky Mountain Line!”
You could see that Eric was just plain fed-up, tired of being hassled, but still trying to do the right thing, even calling the cop who was about to jump him “officer,” treating him with respect, trying so hard to stay out of jail. Like one more time in handcuffs would just be too much: “Twenty-one links of chain around my leg, twenty-one links of chain around my leg, and on each link, an initial of my name!”
Sixty years ago, early in the morning, as a young vet going to graduate school, I walked the streets of Philly clad in a white T-shirt and khaki pants, looking for a summer factory job. Suddenly two white men pulled up in a car beside me. One of them got out, pistol in hand: “Police officer, up against the wall!” I obeyed.
“What are you doing down here?” It was a white neighborhood.
“Looking for a job. You’re making a mistake.”
“Running numbers down here, right, you bastard?”
The officers soon found out that they had the wrong man—my Dad was their superior officer and he knew that I had been job hunting that day because he’d gotten me up at the crack of dawn to go find a job!
But Eric Garner had no such luck last week, no place to turn. The wild-eyed cops could barely wait to pounce. Eric should have known better than to argue with them, because he kept saying that one of those cops was after him. And he might have known it, too, by all of the crazy false courage tattoos that decorated that cop’s body.
Then they were on him—all five or six of them, one with the death grip around his throat and another trying to grind Eric’s skull into the pavement even as he cried out, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
You’d think that some semblance of pity or mercy might have caused that officer to lift his hand off of Eric’s head, maybe just hold him down, because the man was not resisting. We all do learn, don’t we, that it’s just plain wrong to kick a man when he’s down?
But no, the cop seemed to delight in inflicting pain on this helpless Black giant. Maybe he was pretending to himself that Eric was really one of those Black millionaire ballplayers that dominate the sports world. He’d show him who was boss.
From where, oh where, does all this hatred come? Don’t have to think long for a good answer. You can see and hear it right there on the right-wing radio stations and television channels, where 24 hours a day the commentators, talk show hosts, and call-in guests pollute the airwaves with their messages of race hatred, intolerance, and fear of the “other.” That’s whose message was being transmuted into brute force on that Staten Island street on that sad morning. Eric Garner was just another one of “them”—Black free-loaders, criminals, rappers, Obama supporters! Let the n***r die!
Allen Ballard is a professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Albany. Among his five published works of fiction and non-fiction are his prize-winning Civil War novel about African-American soldiers, “Where I’m Bound,” and his most recent work, “Breaching Jericho’s Walls,” a memoir of his journey from a segregated Philadelphia childhood to mid-century Paris, Cambridge, and Manhattan. More info on his work can be found at http://www.allenballard.com/