Book Review: I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street

BOOK BY MATT TAIBBI
SPIEGEL & GRAU (2017)
336 PP.; $28.00 (HARDCOVER) $14.99 (KINDLE)

With the title, I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, every American knows the subject of Matt Taibbi’s new book: the July 17, 2014, murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City Police Department. After reading a few of the book’s pages, however, one begins to see that it’s not only about Eric Garner as victim but Eric Garner as human being. We are familiarized with his flaws as well as his virtues, and how the two were often interrelated.

In reading I Can’t Breathe, we come to understand Eric Garner in context. We see the impact that billion-dollar real estate developments have on his personal life. We see a legal system bureaucratically fortified against the forces of justice and fair play. We see a police-state mindset—where a police department’s role gradually transitioned from apprehending law-breakers to imposing societal order—creep into the American ethos.

Finally, we see the conclusion Taibbi reaches by probing Eric Garner’s story: that we live in a nation afraid to show its face. Frightened as much of what it might see as what its face might show. That the success of Trumpism wasn’t based on the personality or character of its figurehead but on a collection of American sensibilities about anxiety, crisis, and race.

Eric Garner was a man deeply attentive to what many might consider a retrograde, even depraved, conception of manhood. He, Taibbi writes, “tried to impose a patriarchal ideal onto his marriage that never quite existed in his childhood. He wanted to be the family breadwinner, which meant he didn’t want his wife working outside the home.”

You’d find him standing on the streets day and night—first selling crack cocaine, then untaxed cigarettes. He’d get so exhausted working that he’d fall asleep standing up. His feet caused him a lot of pain—he suffered from diabetes—but he refused to buy himself new shoes. All the money he earned went to his wife and children. What was left over from fresh school clothes went into hiding for when he was sent to jail and his family would lose his illegal income for months at a time.

The neighborhood he and his wife Esaw lived in was too dangerous for trick-or-treating, so they’d buy candy at the store and have their kids go around the apartment pretending they were going from home to home. After years of Garner going in and out of prison—he had over thirty arrests and was harassed by the police countless more times—Taibbi reports that “most of his children were in some version of state care, having been removed because of various problems in the home.”

From interviewing those who knew Garner best, Taibbi discovered that the man had “a few sensitive spots,” his family being one. “The one thing that was guaranteed to get her husband truly angry,” Taibbi reports Esaw telling him, “was implying he wasn’t a responsible father.”

At some point the NYPD started a practice of what they colloquially referred to among themselves as “social raping.” They would strip search (including “cavity search”) citizens in the middle of crowded sidewalks.. This happened to Garner during an arrest in 2007. He responded by trying to file a lawsuit against the police department. Under the “Injuries” section he would list only one: “The injuries I received were to my manhood.”

Garner made the fatal mistake of insisting on having dignity in a system that withholds it from poor, black men at all costs. When the police wanted to arrest him, state action was immediate; when he wanted reprisal, the state’s bureaucratic response was unfailingly slow. On the day he was killed, police ignored a fight Garner helped break up, then swooped in to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes. He said to the police, “Every time you see me, you mess with me. It stops today!” It did. He was choked to death by an officer who, it was later uncovered, already had an extensive history of citizen complaints against him.

The aftermath of Garner’s killing was an homage to bureaucratic entrenchment and a travesty to equality before the law.

On paper, Staten Island’s district attorney simply failed to get an indictment. Of course, that in and of itself is remarkable given that the whole vicious “incident” was caught on camera. Yet Taibbi finds that the state’s failure to indict the officer responsible for Garner’s death wasn’t a result of legal incompetence, but of a frightening, well-established efficiency:

An apparent thrown case by the district attorney’s office, months of grand jury sessions, multiple judges in multiple courts holding the line against inquiries, years of obstinate refusal by city officials to turn over records, [and] a sweeping effort by police to target individuals on the block deemed responsible for the controversy.

These crooked practices, Taibbi discovers, are relatively common in cases involving police violence. Prosecutors will overcharge victims of police assault in hopes of reaching a plea agreement, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll reduce the charges so the case goes in front of a judge instead of a jury. In cases like Garner’s, where the victim doesn’t survive the assault and a grand jury’s called, the prosecutor will turn the proceeding into a convoluted mess (introducing dozens of witnesses, focusing on pedantic procedural matters, etc.) in order to fatigue and confuse jury members.

No justice for Garner was found inside the courtroom or outside on the streets. After the failed indictment, his story was integrated into the typical political narratives. Even though the entire country had watched him being murdered, somehow we still found ourselves denouncing (or defending) “race hustlers” such as Al Sharpton and fobbing off about “black-on-black crime” in Chicago. The legacy of his death was quickly used by the right for electoral cretinism and by the activist left for sectarian squabbling.

A common right-wing trope is that “facts aren’t racist”—which is true in the sense that facts don’t have agency or imperatives. But facts aren’t platonic things adrift in a heavenly ether either. They have implications. They have contexts. They create feedback loops. In court, New York’s notorious stop-and-frisk policing policy was defended on the constitutionally dubious grounds that (1) it worked, and (2) it targeted the statistically correct people (i.e., black and brown people). Thus black and brown people are targeted for arrest because they statistically commit more crimes, which we know because we look at the arrest numbers, which are what they are because black and brown people are targeted for arrest because they statistically commit more crimes, which we know because…

Facts, in other words, aren’t racist but the priority and interpretation we give them can be.

In I Can’t Breathe, one sees how far Taibbi’s journalism has matured: Gone is the Gonzo slapstick, replaced with a much more solemn and compassionate tone. Taibbi isn’t sentimental about Garner though. He doesn’t neglect his personal faults, of which there were many.

In fact, told with the same information, I Can’t Breathe could easily be rewritten as a conservative fantasy about black-male criminality. Throughout the book, however, Taibbi holds onto a simple truth: Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. His children shouldn’t be fatherless. The price for selling untaxed cigarettes and for mouthing off to the police shouldn’t be eternal silence.

Tags: