By Donald LaHuffman
Produced for “Labor and Media Studies” with Prof. Ari Paul, Fall 2014
The United States recently exploded in protest around the country as citizens mobilized to show displeasure at the Staten Island Jury findings. The jurors decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Pantaleo had allegedly held Garner in an illegal choke hold until his death, despite Garner’s pleas of not being able to breathe during the encounter. Ensuing local and national demonstrations connected Garner’s death to the earlier police shooting of Michael Brown who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Community organizers have included mothers in New York City who have lost their sons to alleged police brutality in previous years in these actions. In my graduate Labor Studies class “Labor and Media” taught by Ari Paul during the fall 2014 semester, my classmates and I met five mothers who told their stories. These mothers told the stories to make sure that they were not forgotten.
The speakers (featured in photo above) were:
- Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who was strangled to death in 1994. In the Baez case, a police car was hit by a football accidently and a scuffled ensued after the officers of the car asked the men to go home.
- Margarita Rosario, whose son Anthony Rosario and nephew Hilton Vega were killed on January 12, 1995 by two cops who shot them in the back as documented in subsequent autopsies.
- Juanita Young, whose son, Malcolm Jenkins was shot in the head on March 1, 2002. Jenkins was part of four protestors who were demonstrating against the officers acquitted in the Amadou Diallo case, another breach of justice.
- Joanne Mickens, the mother of Corey Mickens, who was killed by an NYPD officer in 2007.
- The mother of Mohamed Baku, who was killed by police in September 2012.
The mothers were not and have not been alone in wanting their voices to be heard in response to the deaths of their sons. Part of my research on local protests included interviews at a recent action in New York University’s Washington Square Park. Marchers included a combination of grassroots organizers, businesspeople, techies, local ministers, families and more. One protester who was a techie, Sean McKenzie, addressed the issue of police brutality by stating that “it’s time for the community to address the issue.” He did not feel that it was fair for local politicians to say that the African-American community must address “black-on-black” crime with the same fervor as the marching against police brutality. For Sean, it was clear that the issue was police brutality and not race.
There were New York Police officers everywhere to help keep the peace around New York University. They were very polite and sympathetic to New Yorkers rights to march against perceived injustice. However, their perspectives differed from their fellow citizens’ concerns. Two NYPD officers agreed to speak but declined to reveal names or badge numbers. One female officer stated that “these people should walk in my shoes for a week and see what I go through,” while another male NYPD officer stated that a few bad decisions can cast the entire police force in a negative light. He also lamented that real change in the NYPD will only occur when more diverse people take the police exam and become police officers. One of the most telling comments was that “it’s a shame that a few killings” caused all this. The police perspective was twofold: go after the bad cops, and get people into the system by taking the police exam to help change the NYPD culture. Officers had no comment about the trial of Eric Garner. The NYPD maintained the “Code of Silence” on legal proceedings. And of course the Police Benevolent Association has stated that a person being stopped by the police should not resist arrest. In other words, if a person does resist arrest, they will face consequences.
I researched The United Federation of Teachers, another organization that had come out in support of the recent actions. The UFT represents teachers and underserved students and families in NYC. They did not issue a written statement about the protests, but they did deploy several buses. The buses were provided for volunteers to go to march in Washington D.C. free of charge, leaving from bus stops in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The UFT described their stance on their union website: “the social justice caucus of the UFT stands with the Garner family and all the thousands calling for justice.” They went on to say that the “lack of an indictment in the Eric Garner case reflects the deep-seated discrimination prevalent in the institutions of our justice system.”
The UFT is one of many unions that offer complex analysis in response to the issue of police brutality in working class, immigrant neighborhoods of color. In order to understand alternative viewpoints of labor-affiliated networks in the African and Latino American community, I am researching the experiences of officers in the Black Police union.
In closing, there is still much to discuss about the Eric Garner case and its implications for the rest of the country. As demonstrations continue in NYC, I am studying the policy outcomes of the Garner case and the community organizing taking place in the Black Lives Matter movement. In my work in the graduate Urban Studies program, I find that Henri Lefebvre is the theorist who most closely speaks to the issues in the Eric Gardner case. His analysis of who has the right to public space in “everyday life” speaks to the masses who were outraged at the failing legal system against African-American and other minorities. Other questions that emerge: Will the NYPD adopt safer procedures to apprehend suspects? How will “Stop and Frisk” be modified or removed? What dialogue will develop about white male privilege that even allows for the killing of unarmed black men?
Donald J. LaHuffman is in his final semester of Graduate School at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute. He will earn his M. A. in Urban Studies with a minor in Heath Care Policy and Administration.