Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I Can't Breathe: The Racism of the Justice System

"A masterly narrative of urban America and a scathing indictment of the perverse incentives built into our penal system, I Can’t Breathe drills down into the particulars of one case to confront us with the human cost of our broken approach to dispensing criminal justice." from the publisher's website
Taibbi's book I Can't Breathe explains the evolution of discrimination justified by being 'tough on crime' and how it lead to the death of Eric Garner, which fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Random House sent me an email offering pre-approval to read I Can't Breathe by Matt Taibbi. I downloaded the book to check it out, and realized it was the perfect book to build upon other recent reads about justice and race, including Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Detroit: 1967Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I had acquired a basic understanding that the justice system was inherently racist. Taibbi's thorough consideration of the death of Eric Garner explained the political and social pressures that changed police culture after overt institutional racism was pushed underground.

Taibbi presents a balanced portrait of a beloved family man who was deeply flawed, as we all are, but whom Taibbi came to truly like. Readers will connect to Eric, a bigger than life, eccentric character. Unemployable because of a prior conviction, Eric supports his family by creating a business selling 'loosies', black market cigarettes smuggled in from states with lower cigarette taxes and sold individually. Eric is jailed and fined over and over. 

When Americans became worried about crime during the tumultuous 1970s politicians began offering promises to be 'tough on crime.' White Americans were afraid of urban African Americans. 

In the 1990s, New York City led the way by pushing for increased arrests. Cops were to stop and frisk first to see if they could turn up anything to justify an arrest! People were targeted by color, attire, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, reaching for their pocket--but the real motivation was racism. Blacks and Hispanics in high-crime neighborhoods were targeted.

Cops publicly humiliated their victims by public cavity searches and the use of unnecessary brute force was common. The system protected the cops.

Garner stood out. He was big, he wore clothes that were literally falling apart, and he stood in the same place day after day. He had asthma. He had been looking poorly and was tired. He was robbed and beaten up, financially always struggling to support his family. 

Garner was an easy catch for a cop who needed to meet his quota. He was stopped and searched hundreds of times and when cops discovered a few packs of cigarettes  he would be arrested and his money confiscated.

Garner's son had just earned a scholarship to college, and Garner was the father of a new baby when he broke up a street fight. Cops who had been watching the fight arrested Garner even though he had not sold a cigarette all morning. Ramsey Orta saw the arrest and filmed it with his cellphone. When Garner countered that he had not done anything wrong and was not going to be arrested that day, four officers went after Garner and pushed him to the ground.

"I can't breathe," he said over and over. And then he stopped breathing and the cops did nothing. 

Taibbi put Garner's death in perspective of how policing changed: instituting 'reasonable' suspicion as a validating a stop and frisk; the adoption of "Broken Windows" and the emphasis on policing as keeping 'order', creating a 'goal setting' culture; zero-tolerance policing and 'predictive policing'. 

Groups rose up to challenge the discriminatory methods but had little success. Eric's daughter Erica Garner worked for justice for her father. Bureaucracy protected the cops and left the families of victims without justice. Orta's cell phone video made him a police target. Politicians got involved for personal attention. Protest groups arose demanding justice, including Black Lives Matter.

I am disgusted by how often I hear people counter Black Lives Matter with "all lives matter." That is true, but not all 'lives' are targeted because of color or where they live.

A few years back I visited a college friend living in Detroit. Driving home I was lost and tense. When I got to an overpass with no cars I sped up a bit and was pulled over by a cop.

The cop said, "don't say anything," and took my driver's license. He came back and said, "I will write this up so you don't have it on your record, but you will pay a fine." I wondered then what it was that caused him to do this? My clean driving record? And today I wonder, if I were a person of color, would he have searched my car and person looking for evidence to arrest me?

I have never felt so protected and cushioned by the accident of my color as I have after reading I Can't Breathe.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street
Matt Taibbi
Random House
Publication Date: October 24, 2017
Hardcover $28.00
ISBN: 9780812988840

When I opened my Ocober 2017 issue of Quilting Arts I came across Chawn Kimber's amazing quilt dedicated to Eric Garner, "The One for Eric G."
Kimber, Chawne. The One for Eric G. 2015. From Michigan State University Museum, Michigan State University Museum Collection. Published in The Quilt Index, http://www2.matrix.msu.edu/~quilti/fulldisplay.php?kid=1E-3D-2932.
Accessed: 09/18/2017
Find out more about Chawne's art at

No comments:

Post a Comment