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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street

Matt Taibbi's I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street was one of the most powerful non-fiction books I have read in some time.

In 2014, on Bay Street in Staten Island, Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by police and died at their hands. This, you are familiar with. But the journey to get to Bay Street on that hot summer day is one you aren't familiar with unless you spend you life steeped in research on the history of social (in)justice. Eric was a man on the streets selling cigarettes to support his family, and decades of history within the policing tactics of New York City came to a head to ultimately take the life of a father, a husband, a friend, a son, a human. The events before and after are ones you may not know about, but they are presented here in Taibbi's treatise on not just what happened to one person, but the injustice of the system as a whole that led to this death, and so many others.

"Broken windows" is a policy many of us are familiar with, but are we, really? It wasn't until I was a couple of chapters into Taibbi's book that I actually took the time to find the 1982 article in The Atlantic by the men who came up with the theory. You may find it more informative than you think. Taibbi goes into detail about George L. Kelling's work that led up to this and his thoughts about it even as cities started to adapt his work. He figured out very quickly that this policy, in the wrong hands, would lead to grave consequences for the citizens of the city living under its thumb. Boy, was he right. Three decades after the theory was put forth, it's a fair assessment that "broken windows" hs certainly achieved lower rates of crime but at a huge cost to the humans who make up the heart of the city. So many names mentioned in this book we know without needing much explanation -- Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. These men and women are only a fraction of those who have lost their lives over the long game of social policies meant to "protect" the public. We know that's not how it goes.

"Stop and frisk" runs along those same lines, and it's something that has been on my mind for many years. This policy is not recent, but I watched it in action in my neighborhood in Queens. I saw many men stopped and frisked, and it was a difficult thing to watch helplessly. What could I do? It made me angry to watch this practice first hand among my neighbors and not be able to do anything about it other than to complain on social media. I knew it was absurd then, and I stand by that assertion four years later. The evidence for it is available for you to look up yourself, but you can start here with this article. The contributions of these programs and policies that criminalize a walk to the subway only seek to separate citizens.

Tiabbi has written a clear, concise, and haunting account of not just Garner's death, but of the systemic issues surrounding it that lead up to it -- such as stronger policing of little crimes in an area newly built up by wealthy white residents in Staten Island -- all the way through to the court cases that would not allow the records of what happened, other than the video released by an onlooker, to the public. There was no justice in this case, and Taibbi makes that clear for his reader with such pathos and honesty. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I was reading in this book, and I ultimately came to the decision that I do not care what anyone is doing -- I don't care about someone selling illegal cigarettes, giving a cop attitude, or demanding that they be respected as a person -- the loss of human life is shameful and should be mourned regardless of circumstances.

This book is worth buying, reading, and keeping if you are at all interested in race, crime, policing, an the intersection of these issues with social policy.

I would also like to note the heartbreak that came with the passing of Erica, Eric's daughter and mother of two children who became an activist after her father's death and the subsequent lack of justice. The loss of life should always be mourned, whether you agree or disagree with actions and politics. 

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