“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of Eric Garner, the latest victim in the police’s war on black people. Despite the fact that chokeholds are not a permissible arrest policy, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo last week, following on the heels of multiple other instances across the country of police killing unarmed black people.
In Cleveland, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after mistaking a BB gun for a more dangerous weapon, despite the fact that the officer had previously been evaluated as unfit for duty. In Phoenix, an unidentified officer shot and killed 34-year-old Rumian Brisbon after similarly mistakenly thinking that the suspect had a gun. In response to these incidents and many more, protestors stormed the streets of major cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., sometimes going as far as shutting down major highways.
President Obama responded with strong words and promises of action. “When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law,” the president proclaimed, “that is a problem and it’s my job as president to help solve it.” The Justice Department announced that it will open a civil rights inquiry into the Garner case. However, the sheer scale of disproportionate use of lethal force against black suspects makes it unlikely that the administration’s actions can come anywhere close to fixing systematic discrimination in America’s criminal justice system.
A recent report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. Although people of color are a mere 30 percent of America’s population, they constitute 60 percent of the prison population. One in every 15 black men is currently incarcerated compared to one in every 106 white men.
The machine of systematic racial inequality is not something a mere inquiry can repair. If the president wishes to truly uphold equality under the law, he should make bolder reforms to government institutions that disproportionately subjugate minorities.
President Obama needs to end the drug war, the single biggest driver of racial inequality in the justice system. Despite accounting for only 14 percent of regular drug users, blacks constitute 37 percent of related arrests.
He also needs to reverse the increasing militarization of the police that often escalate routine policing activities to near-warfare. Since blacks are disproportionately targeted by police, they are also disproportionately harmed by the absurd military arsenal many local police forces wield.
President Obama needs to take a stand against the private prison complex that creates perverse incentives for housing more prisoners and contributes to a system that incarcerates blacks at six times the rate of whites, and he needs to stop supporting gun control measures that make it increasingly difficult for minorities to defend themselves.
Until these measures are taken seriously, too many Eric Garners will continue to die at the hands of the police.
Cory Massimino is a Young Voices Advocate and fellow at The Center for a Stateless Society.