More Than a Chokehold

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I’m fixing to wade into some precarious waters. I have been asked more than a few times since the tragic death of Eric Garner my opinion on this matter. I can only assume that anyone who has ever slapped on a chokehold or two in their life might consider themselves an “authority” in the area. I do not, but I will do my best to answer these questions to the best of my ability and to answer them honestly and with that honesty I hope the toes of any brethren I may trod upon will cut me some slack and assume any errors in my estimation are due to the fact that I have now been hit in the head for 37 years. I offer all of these pre-apologies because we know the question is about more than a chokehold.

With all that said, let’s work backwards.

First, the choke itself was not necessarily the prime causative factor of death as many have pointed out. People are choked day-in and day-out in gyms across the land with little to no harm being done. But…these chokes are being conducted and applied by two willing participants, folks that, presumably, know how to apply a choke, on folks who are expecting the possibility of a choke and have some experience with dealing with this likelihood. Mr. Garner, to my knowledge did not apply chokes or have any experience in handling or dealing with chokes.

Second, it has been pointed out that Mr. Garner was not a fit man and that is what actually led to his death. Hmm? That is some hair-splitting in my opinion. Yes, being un-fit may have been a factor but, that factor was shifted into stressed overdrive by the chokehold and subsequent dogpile. Does anyone think that had Mr. Garner not been choked and dog-piled that he still would have dropped dead on the street at that very moment? Of course not.

Making ado about his state of health is a form of victim-blaming “If only he had been fitter,” “If only she didn’t wear that short dress, she was asking for it.” Not to put too fine a point on it, let’s say you and your spouse, your young child, and elderly grandmother are T-boned by a drunk-driver and the young child and grandmother are killed in the collision. Do we ever argue that the drunk-driver is less culpable because the two dead family members were not as robust and hardy as the survivors? No, we don’t, it is ludicrous to argue in this manner.

With that said, do I think officer Daniel Pantaleo and his brethren in blue intended to kill Mr. Garner? Absolutely not. But that does not change the fact that Mr. Garner’s death came as a direct result of their actions – Pantaleo’s chokehold, and the chest compression of the dogpile.

Here’s where it gets sticky, and may initially sound like I’m smacking down cops, but if you’ll stay with me I hope you’ll see that this tragic incident has more to do with what we didn’t see on the video than what we did see.

First, a sidebar for racism. Did it just get uncomfy in here? Do I think Garner was accosted because he was black? No, I don’t.  Is there racism in the US? Sure, there’s racism on all sides and anyone who disputes that is lying to others or lying to themselves. The good news is that it is nowhere near as prevalent as it is being portrayed by the sensation hungry media. Yeah, I know that’s easy for this white man to say, but I like to think that my “less now” stance is informed by the historical record and not the sensation of the week. No, this isn’t a license to soft-pedal responses to racism when we encounter it, it’s just an honest asking of “Hey, can we dial this whole, well if you don’t agree with me you’re a racist thing down a little”? If I disagree with the current Prez (which I do on most things) this can be chalked up to “You don’t like him because he’s black.” If I point out the fact that the last President I sort of agreed with was Calvin Coolidge does this mean since I didn’t agree with 13 white men I dislike white people even more? Nope, it just means I don’t dig folks who like to tell other folks what to do.

The argument should always start with the matter at hand and not move beyond that unless there is good evidence to add a racial element. In the case of Mr. Garner, I’m just not seeing it, and in this I am in agreement with Mr. Garner’s daughter, Erica, she sees no racism in this instance either. A few of these “it’s racism” spouting folks on both sides of the color line ought to consult opinion a bit closer to home before being so cocksure.

Mr. Garner’s death not being racially motivated does not make it any less of a tragedy, in fact, I argue, it may make it even more so because what happened to Mr. Garner could conceivably happen to any of us – white, black and all the colors of the rainbow in between. Why?

Mr. Garner was accused of selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. Yes, this is “legally” a crime, but I would argue not all “illegal” acts are crimes (gambling and un-licensed hair-braiding, for example) and not all “legal” acts are just or right (members of Congress exempting themselves from insider trading scrutiny, for example). In the city of New York I can buy a single bottle of beer without breaking any law, I can buy a single Diet Soda. I can buy a box of donuts and sell them singly and no one need call 911. But if I buy a pack of cigarettes and accept money for them singly I can potentially be in Mr. Garner’s shoes.

This law came about because A) Some people don’t like other people smoking so the best thing to do about someone else’s behavior that doesn’t affect yourselves is to, of course, either make sure they can’t do it (hence, all the places you can’t smoke anymore, or if you do you must huddle a certain yardage from the building so we don’t get infected with your nicotine-grossness or B) Slap a big fat hefty tax on it to “dis-incentivize” things you personally don’t like because you, of course, know best.

I am a non-smoker. I don’t dig how my clothes smell after hanging with a bunch of my smoking friends. But, I also don’t dig Maroon 5 and I don’t ask bars to ban it from the playlist, or charge Adam Levine an exorbitant tax every time he thinks he has a new song idea. I shrug it off and hang with my friends or tune out the aforementioned band because it appears some folks like to smoke and dance to Maroon-5; I don’t own the planet so I choose to get along with my fellow tenants.

These petty, nose-in-your-business, nanny-state, I-know-what’s-best-for-you laws have unintended consequences. 35 years ago this legislation’s tragic outcome would have been labeled a slippery-slope absurd argument. I can’t imagine me sitting in the backseat of the car as my two smoking parents told the young me “In the future, Mark, people who smoke, like your Mommy and Daddy will be considered stupid and unclean. The Government will step in to save us from ourselves and because we are weak and will still try to engage in this filthy habit there will be policemen who, for our own good, stop these vicious nicotine peddlers with deadly-force if need be.”

Now, that slippery-slope argument sounds ridiculous but the slope has been slipped. If we can detain or dogpile a man for cigarettes can we not also assume (rightly or wrongly) other slippery slopes? The NYC soda ban failed but took root elsewhere as has other nonsense legislation. It can start as innocuous “we know best” acts but when you then ask law enforcement to, well, enforce your bullshit law you will have some unfortunate consequences.

Yes, some will point to, “Well, he was resisting arrest.” Indeed he was, if by resisting arrest you mean the man didn’t want to be cuffed for what he sees as an absurd law, well, I’m right there with him. I like to think that I am a rather easygoing guy.  I have never committed a violent crime in my life and have yet now had 2 unpleasant interactions with TSA, and one close call with German Customs. Why? In less dire circumstances than Mr. Garner I simply don’t like being touched or addressed in a certain way when my behavior has not prompted supercilious contempt. I think a great many of us just may react with a bit of “Aw, come on, are you serious?” when faced with legalized pettiness.

It can still be argued that if he had just complied all would have been well. Indeed, it is up to the individual to make that call, the complete obeisance and adherence to the wisdom of the state. Me? I find it tragic that our “betters” continually construct legislation that they have no skin-in-the-game with. The legislators don’t have to hit the streets and make their magic utopias come true. They leave it to some good men and women in uniform to muddle through, to make the best of their absurdities and often times lose a great deal of respect along the way.

I have friends who are cops, and most of my non-cop friends are law-abiding sorts, but when was the last time you saw a cop in your rear-view mirror and thought “Wow! A hero right behind me, aren’t I lucky?” Nah, chances are you checked your speed, and hoped that he wasn’t looking at you. Now, why is that? I say it’s because we have muddied their jobs with bullshit.

We don’t have the same rearview mirror experience when we see a fire truck or an ambulance, we honestly do see heroes then because their mission statement has remained pure—they’re here to help. But legislation has muddied law enforcement’s mission statement so that, yes, more often than not they are here to help, but there are enough incidents of “We’re here to harass at the bidding of bureaucrats” that we hold them in less esteem than once was the case.

Back to Mr. Garner.

Mr. Garner was engaged in a crime that is a crime in no one’s book but a “I-know-better-than-you” bureaucrat.

Police are asked to hit the streets and enforce a series of questionable laws eroding their character and the confidence of their constituents.

When bad things happen, we focus on what we see (the video).

We focus far less on what we don’t see, the numerous bureaucrats who ask folks to hit the streets to harass and accost others at their bidding.

Mr. Garner was killed, not because he was black, not because he was unfit, not because the police officers were not doing their job.

He was killed because they were doing their job.

We are outraged because of the nature of the “crime.” If we saw this exact same video and were told that Mr. Garner had just killed and eaten 3 children we would not be sweating this at all, we’d be thinking “Good riddance, way to go NYPD!” We are outraged because of what instigated the confrontation and that, to my way of thinking, should be where the blame and argument starts. Ask who agitated for and legislated this sort of heavy-handed behavior and let’s hold their feet to the fire. Culpability, in this case, starts with the “law” that says this is “right.”

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Mark Hatmaker is an MMA trainer and best-selling author with over 150 instructional videos to his credit. And, unbeknownst to most, he is guitarist and songwriter for the punk-band Re-Voltaire.