[Marxism] ‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Life and Death

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 20 09:25:40 MST 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Nov. 19 2017
‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Life and Death

A Killing on Bay Street
By Matt Taibbi
322 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.

“Homicide” is too simple a word for what happened to Eric Garner on that 
Staten Island sidewalk three years ago. Many of us would personally 
testify to the term’s technical accuracy, having watched, ad infinitum, 
the horrifying video of the 43-year-old grandfather and loose-cigarette 
dealer gasping for air as a New York City police officer, Daniel 
Pantaleo, uses a chokehold and wrestles Garner down to the pavement.

Saying that the chokehold killed Garner feels incomplete. Politics, race 
and money play roles in nudging us all to our fates, and Garner’s demise 
on July 17, 2014, involved all three. Assessing his end solely based on 
what happened that day is tempting, given the video evidence. However, a 
more thorough understanding is required.

Matt Taibbi, the author and Rolling Stone contributing editor, has 
published a new book that properly depicts the Garner killing as a 
consequence of our society’s ills. Its title, “I Can’t Breathe: A 
Killing on Bay Street,” seems to imply a narrow focus on the Garner 
killing, belying the book’s prismatic approach to both the people and 
policies involved in Garner’s life and death.

Taibbi has recently come under renewed scrutiny for a 2000 book he 
co-wrote with Mark Ames, with whom he edited an English-language 
newspaper in 1990s Russia, in which they describe sexually harassing and 
assaulting their female employees. Taibbi has since posted two apologies 
on Facebook, saying that such passages in the book were intended as satire.

Satire or not, the criticisms will no doubt be disqualifying to some 
readers. But one should not mistake a review of this book on Garner with 
an endorsement of the author or his previous work. This time, as Taibbi 
wrote in one of his Facebook posts, he found a story that “had to be 
told without my voice, without linguistic cartwheels or jokes or any of 
the other circus tricks I learned to use.” Indeed, “I Can’t Breathe” is 
a work of deep reporting, as chapter by chapter, Taibbi introduces us to 
individual players — from Garner’s fellow street hustlers in the 
beleaguered Tompkinsville section of Staten Island to activists who 
protested the grand jury’s refusal to indict Pantaleo (a man whom we 
also get to know much better, as Taibbi unearths what he can of his 
past). The story of the Garners’ tumultuous and often combative family 
life is told by people who were there, including Garner’s daughter 
Erica, an activist. In this book, humanization does not equal 
lionization, and sympathy is never confused for pity. This applies to 
everyone, in particular the book’s principal subject. Though he aims to 
flesh out and contextualize what happened to Garner, this may be the 
most critical look at the man himself. Every fault, compulsion and bad 
choice is presented in full relief. Still, as Taibbi writes early on, 
“Eric Garner may have created a lot of his own problems, but he was also 
the victim of bad luck and atrocious timing.”

It is impossible to understand how society’s pressures and inequities 
wore Garner down without examining an obsession with providing for his 
family that went so deep that he ignored his own needs. But Taibbi’s 
reportorial voice, often blunt and forceful, is most compassionate when 
he is integrating political realities with facts about Garner and the 
incidents depicted. Taibbi describes in full the horrors of 
institutionalized poverty in neighborhoods like Tompkinsville, from the 
real-estate scams that created them to the overseer mentality of the 
police patrolling them. Crooked landlords and legal quagmires all shaped 
Garner’s world.

Taibbi is smart to depict the structurally racist system of law 
enforcement in this country as a character in and of itself. The 
misguided and destructive “broken windows” policing tactic is portrayed 
here as Frankenstein’s monster, built with good intentions without 
thought to tragic consequences. “Right or wrong, the threat of being 
stopped went from an annoyance to a thing that took over his life,” 
Taibbi writes. Like the Moirai of Greek mythology, other people made 
political choices that directed the course of Garner’s life and 
accelerated its end. The first half of the book, as it progresses, feels 
increasingly like a train without brakes that is rolling downhill. If 
readers are unfamiliar with the fatalism and frustration that racial 
discrimination, poverty and poor policing engender in men like Eric 
Garner, Taibbi provides an able introduction.

Jamil Smith, a journalist and a radio host, is currently a contributing 
opinion writer at The Los Angeles Times.

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