“8 Cops, 1 Homeless Man, 46 Bullets”
These are two headlines about an incident in my hometown, Saginaw, Michigan. But we will get to that town later.
I have never seen a human being die in front of me. I have been around death and dying, have attended funerals for young and old, those we lost at the hands of rampant gun crime, car accidents, cancers and heart disease. I have been around extreme tensions and escalated violence. But I have never witnessed the death of someone.
When I read the last words of Eric Garner, I naturally held my breath as I imagined being there for the death of this man.
“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please. Please don’t touch me. Do not touch me. [garbled} I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
I had to read it again. One more time. No need for video or audio.
Mr. Garner died that day. And just by reading his words, I am crushed. I could not imagine being there to see him die and I could not fathom having my hands involved in the scuffle, like the police did that day. Would I have turned in my badge, sought therapy, cried for weeks, thrown up when I looked at myself in the mirror? A man died. Six children lost their loving father because I wasn’t able to talk to a man who had committed a small, non-violent crime and was frustrated by me, the police.
I do not believe in the death penalty, or even corporal punishment; and to some extent, self defense. If you told me that a mass murderer was 100% guilty, I would still question his/her death at the hands of the authorities. But even if you think the death penalty is a solid punishment, wouldn’t you say the crime would have to be big? The penalty would be death for someone who murdered and tortured, or stole millions, or was a dictator. It should never be that the penalty is death without trial for speaking your mind, selling individual cigarettes, delaying or resisting arrest, stealing snacks, or loitering in the streets.
Back to my hometown. My dad was one of a handful of white students in a 99% black high school in the late 1960s, early 1970s. As a boy living downtown in Saginaw, MI, he had often walked across the backyards to play with the neighbor boy who happened to be blind and named Stevie… who would later add Wonder. The school I attended decades later in the nearby suburbs, by contrast, was 100% white. There may have been one Asian student once, if I remember correctly. As a young student there was some bullying when a peer of mine started a rumor that my dad must be black because my hair was so curly. Years later, when my quarter-Mexican boyfriend came with me to prom, the first thing he said was, “Wow, I am the closest thing to a minority in here!” When I made the decision that I wanted to attend a second high school, an arts and sciences magnet school, my parents supported the decision; even though it meant leaving my morning school everyday around lunch and driving downtown. Saginaw, MI has a crime rate that tops many lists. I was fine. What’s more, I found the love of good friends because my parents had taught me to trust people.
It is why we don’t need to kill people who hint at being threatening, especially when unarmed.
Trust is risky, but it works well.
It is how I (at 5’1″ and 110 lbs) could disarm a tall, angry young Bengali man wielding a large kitchen knife, pursing his target down the street in 2002. Trust is what allowed for him to listen to me.
It is how I could walk into the heart of an anti-American protest at the US Embassy Cairo in 2012. Trust is what led one of those protesters to offer this American a cup of tea.
It is how I so wish more American police could operate now, based on trust.