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Solomon Jones: The tragedy of Eric Garner

THE IMAGE was horrific. An unarmed father of six, choked from behind by a police officer on a Staten Island street corner.

Illustration by Richard Harrington.
Illustration by Richard Harrington.Read more

THE IMAGE was horrific. An unarmed father of six, choked from behind by a police officer on a Staten Island street corner.

As his life slipped away, Eric Garner repeatedly gasped the words that would come to define the encounter: "I can't breathe."

Though Garner repeated that fateful phrase 11 times, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man whose chokehold killed Garner, did not let him go. In fact, Pantaleo pushed Garner's face into the sidewalk as three more officers held Garner's arms and feet.

This is how a husband and father died on a busy New York street. I know this to be true because the entire incident was caught on cellphone video. That video was viewed not only by the grand jury that declined to indict Pantaleo in Garner's death last week. That video was viewed by all of us.

The New York City Medical Examiner's Office found that the chokehold killed Garner. The office went on to say that Garner's acute and chronic bronchial asthma and other health issues were contributing factors in his death. They ruled his death a homicide, and, in my view, the video makes clear that they ruled correctly.

Garner didn't die because he was a dangerous killer. He didn't die because he was a threat to others. He died because he'd been accused of selling loose cigarettes, and after saying he was tired of being harassed, Garner resisted arrest.

Let's be clear. Garner was not perfect. He'd been arrested before for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, but, the last time I checked, that offense didn't carry the death penalty. However, Officer Pantaleo made a conscious decision to use a maneuver banned by the police department because of the danger it posed. And in doing so, Pantaleo became judge, jury and executioner.

That saddens me. But beyond the grief I feel for Garner's violent death at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us, I also feel empathy for Garner. His failing health and dim job prospects had left him hustling cigarettes on the street.

I've been there. At times when I was between jobs and my family was depending on me to make a way, I stood on the cusp of desperation and did what I had to do to make a way.

I walked into barbershops and beauty salons hawking books to pay the bills when the part-time writing jobs weren't enough. I designed business cards and invitations when the book sales were slow. I worked at jobs that paid next to nothing just to make ends meet for the moment. I did this despite my college degree, despite my experience as a writer and despite what others might think, because my family was depending on me, and I was not going to let them down.

I don't pretend to know Eric Garner's life story, but I imagine he felt that same duty as a father and as a man. He just didn't want to feel useless, so he stood at the edge of desperation and allegedly sold loose cigarettes. For that, he was killed by a policeman.

That's not right, and all of us who care about fatherhood and family, no matter our color, or our background, or our political bent, must stand up to fix that problem.

Because if a policeman could kill an unarmed man like Eric Garner on video, and never face a single consequence, we've handed the police too much power, and it's time we took that power back.

When our children can be shot and killed by policemen on playgrounds, we've clearly lost our way. When a father can be choked to death for selling loose cigarettes, the system has utterly failed.

When fathers and sons are both in the crosshairs of a broken criminal-justice system, our families are in danger and, in the end, family is all we have.

If you don't believe it, ask those whom Eric Garner left behind.