“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” -Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1861
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; …” -Thomas Jefferson [Boyd, Julian P., ed. (1950). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 1: 1760-1776. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 243–247. OCLC 16353926]
Reading about, witnessing, and being part of the latest protests have affected me on an emotional and moral level, and to get at a better understanding of the process of protest, civic duty, equal rights, and democracy in general, I’d like to write a few words on the issue, but I also wish to dispense with the emotional aspects and focus just on logic and morals. After all, the law ought to deal with such issues similarly.
Also, I’ve posted photographs of the protests in Berkeley, CA from Saturday, December 6, and Monday, December 8, 2014. You can find them at the the bottom of this post.
Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 after being confronted by police about selling untaxed cigarettes (of which he did not possess). Officer Panteleo, perceiving Garner to be resisting arrest, put him in a choke hold (banned by the New York Police Department), and with the assistance of Officer Justin Damico, continued to subdue Garner, even after he repeatedly said he could not breathe, until he died. The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, yet on December 3 the grand jury did not indict the officers for any crimes.
As we know from the Mike Brown case–along with countless others that haven’t been publicized–, the grand jury’s failure to indict follows a similar pattern: grand juries regularly indict regular citizens; they seem to rarely indict police. It’s probably safe to assume that that there is probable cause to indict regular citizens more often that there is to indict police officers. But illegal and immoral acts are still so regardless of their infrequent occurrence, and it is illegal and immoral acts and their resulting injustice that sparked, in part, the ongoing protests in Berkeley.
Putting aside the media arguments for and against Garner’s homicide, one might consider the greater issue: laws and how they relate to morals. Let’s entertain a scenario. If being arrested can be considered moral, then the person being arrested has no right to resist arrest. However, in Garner’s case we have clearly seen that what is legal is most certainly not what is moral, and, therefore, we can easily see that there can be immoral laws upheld by unjust police.
Furthermore, if we assume, using our current laws as a guide, that Garner had no right to resist, we must ask the question of whether or not his act of resistance justifies his homicide. There might be cases when resistance does morally justify force, and even lethal force is warranted. If, say, someone has already shot people and police are trying to subdue this dangerous person. If this person fires on police, or endangers others, it would seem morally right for police to use force to prevent this person from hurting other civilians, the police, or themselves. After all, the Declaration of Independence does provide for unalienable rights: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So, using these same set of morals, we could concede that police are justified in using enough force to subdue the person in relation to the danger the person presents to others, to himself, and to the police. Everyone has the right to to self-defense, even police, but police must accept some risk to prevent unnecessary harm or death; this is part of their job.
My point, finally, is this: Eric Garner’s death was not his fault no matter what the media pundits say. That he was overweight, that he resisted arrest, that he was–according to the media–a criminal are all non-arguments because they do not speak directly to the greater issue: the police took Garner’s life without suffering sufficient threat to the lives of others or theirs. Sure, if the police had not suspected him of a crime and he had not resisted arrest, he would most likely be alive today, but the more relevant truth is that if police had used force and procedure proportional to Garner’s actions, Garner would probably also still be alive today. Our laws do not allow police to enact on-street justice as they see fit, so if someone commits or is suspected of committing a crime, his or her death ought not to be automatically justified.
Using Lincoln’s thesis from the quote above, and in lieu of the obvious disproportionate force that many police officers use these days, it is our duty as citizens to abolish this immoral behavior by amending our government’s laws to protect all citizens from the police whose primary task is to protect us and not kill us! Otherwise, the people have no choice but to dismember government itself.
Berkeley, CA: Saturday December 6, 2014
Berkeley, CA: Monday December 8, 2014