White Justice, Black Grief: When White Accountability Falls Short In Cases Like Emmett Till And Eric Garner
White justice is as black and white as ever, and sometimes blue.
Justice is never swiftly served if it ever is at all, especially in cases where black bodies succumb to white brutality.
On July 17, 2014, a nation watched Eric Garner suffer such a fate. A white New York Police Department officer choked Garner’s dying words -- “I can’t breathe” -- from his mouth as a group of officers helped restrain Garner, while others backed down a concerned crowd. Garner, a husband and father of six, was pronounced dead one hour later; five months later, a grand jury failed to indict his murderer. The news came as a shock to his family and the black community. A year later, New York City settled with the Garners in a wrongful death civil lawsuit. Though Garner was not the first black man violently killed by a police officer, nor would he be the last, it was the visual, viral and visceral impact that made his death nuanced. By way of digital devices, we saw a white man use an illegal chokehold to subdue a black man and snuff out his life, and yet again walk away scot-free. And though vindication is a rarity for black people, seemingly the NYPD wants to make good on the slight, four years removed.
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Taking rare initiative, NYPD plans to hold Officer Daniel Pantaleo accountable for policing Eric Garner to death, albeit administrative discipline and not criminal. They have given the Department of Justice an ultimatum and deadline to move forward with a criminal investigation against Pantaleo for his actions in Garner’s death, or else they will move forward with departmental charges. On the surface, this deed appears commendable; however, it is a dollar store band-aid to cover another centuries-old wound. And it arrives gravely late. Garner is 1463 days dead, and $5.9 million is chicken feed for a lost life. Pantaleo’s aggressive actions warrant the same courtesy extended to former NYPD officer Justin Volpe, who received a 30-year prison sentence for his savage attack on Abner Louima. He deserves to be criminalized like the many black people who fill prisons and jails and inadvertently contribute to mass incarceration.
Pantaleo should have been canceled a long time ago, and the NYPD needs to do better.
What is at work here is not solely holding a killer cop accountable, but rather a sly way to save face for an unfair and untimely judicial process. The NYPD is not alone in its underhanded redemptive plight; the Justice Department needs to do better, too. The decision to reopen the Emmett Till case is ass-backward. Till, who was 14 when he was brutally beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, tossed into a river that runs through one of the nation’s racist states, has been dead some 63 years. The heathens who confessed to the crime are long gone. The statute of limitations has run its course, and the confession of 83-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham--the white liar behind Till’s lynching--is restricted until 2036. Posthumous adjudication is weak. Instead of romancing black people by righting yesterday’s white wrongs, how about courting social justice and the tools to dismantle a f**ked-up legal system? At this moment, we are plagued by white violence that not only threatens our physicality, but also our mental well-being, our voices and the spaces we occupy.
The idea of reopening cases and pursuing departmental charges is somewhat commendable; after all accountability and justice is what we seek in the first place -- just not 99 years later. Justice should be as urgent as the outrage that follows a crime itself. Black people need your help to catch up.
As it stands, the old damage is done, and no amount of white salve will cure current black pain. Until the DOJ and every legal system that falls beneath it, is ready to revamp itself, we aren't here for secondary licks to our scabbed wounds. Another bandage won’t do. Nah.