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Eric Garner died in a government drug war

Eric Garner died in a government drug war

On Thursday, July 17, drug-related violence claimed the life of a husband and father on a New York street corner. But this was not a case of crack dealers spraying bullets in the shadow of graffiti strewn abandonment. No, this was something much worse.

The tragic killing of Eric Garner firmly established that local and state authorities, and not individuals, are the kingpins when it comes to the sale of one of the world’s most dangerous drugs—tobacco.

This killing, in which a man died after being attacked from behind and placed in an illegal chokehold, was spurred by drug violence of another kind. It was, in essence, a deadly attempt to settle a turf war between the government and regular citizens.

The government won this round, firmly establishing through the tragic killing of Eric Garner, that local and state authorities, and not individuals, are the kingpins when it comes to the sale of one of the world’s most dangerous drugs—tobacco.

In New York City, where a pack of Newports can cost $14, thanks to a combination of taxes, including New York City’s $4.35 a pack cigarette tax, there is a thriving underground economy run by individuals and store-owners who sell cigarettes on the black market. By selling cigarettes under the table, those people cut the government out of the profits. Eric Garner, who’d previously been arrested and charged with selling loose cigarettes, was allegedly one of those individuals.

Eric Garner is a drug war casualty

When police approached him last Thursday, Garner, a 43-year-old African American man who believed he was being harassed, became angry.

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” he said on a videotape of the encounter that was recorded by a passerby. “I’m tired of it. It stops today. I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone.”

The video then shows Garner being violently arrested by four officers, including Daniel Pantaleo, an eight-year NYPD veteran who apparently approached Garner from behind and placed him in an illegal chokehold.

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” he said on a videotape of the encounter that was recorded by a passerby. “I’m tired of it. It stops today. I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone.”

Garner says “I can’t breathe,” several times on the video, apparently to no avail. Rather than allowing him the chance to breathe, the officers are seen pushing Garner’s face into the sidewalk.

Minutes later, as the father and grandfather lies motionless on the concrete, the officers mill about, doing nothing, even as passersby ask why they are not trying to revive Garner. Four minutes into the videotaped encounter, four paramedics arrive, and while one of them takes Garner’s pulse, they also essentially do nothing to revive him.

In the wake of this deadly encounter, two officers have been placed on leave pending an investigation, four paramedics have been pulled from the street, and Garner is dead, all because he was accused of challenging the government monopoly on dealing a deadly drug to the masses.

Much will be made of the fact that Garner was six-foot three and 350 pounds, as if his size justifies the use of force. Much will be made of the fact that he was an African American man who died at the hands of white police officers. Much will also be made of the fact that Pantaleo has already been sued for similarly racially charged arrests.

In one lawsuit, which was settled, two black men in their 40s accused Pantaleo and other officers of subjecting them to a strip search on a Staten Island street, and ordering them to pull their pants and underwear down, squat and cough. In a second lawsuit, a man accused Pantaleo and other officers of lying on a police report to justify charges that were eventually dismissed.

But at its core, this killing of an unarmed man at the hands of police officers goes far beyond the racial implications. In truth, this killing is far uglier than that.

The ugly truth about Eric Garner’s death

Why? Because Garner is essentially a casualty in a turf war over a deadly and addictive drug. He is a symbol of what can happen when a government decides to jump into the dope game with both feet.

Those who are accused of cutting in on government tobacco profits are at the mercy of government enforcers like Officer Pantaleo. Such men, under the guise of law enforcement, can harass, intimidate, and even kill those who are accused of peddling this drug on the wrong corner.

And make no mistake. Cigarettes, which governments are now using to fund everything from schools to transportation, are drugs. They contain a deadly and addictive cocktail of chemicals including nicotine, and governments selling such poison to its citizens is not only dangerous. It is hypocritical.

On the one hand, government studies commissioned by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tell us that cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year, at an annual cost of  $289 billion in medical bills and lost productivity. On the other hand the same government demands a cut of the profits from the sale of this deadly drug, and protects its turf to the death.

Those who are accused of cutting in on government tobacco profits are at the mercy of government enforcers like Officer Pantaleo. Such men, under the guise of law enforcement, can harass, intimidate, and even kill those who are accused of peddling this drug on the wrong corner.

Perhaps an investigation will establish that Eric Garner was a victim of racism, and perhaps it will not. But one thing about Garner’s death is certain at this point.

Garner is a casualty of the drug war being waged by state and local governments over tobacco sales. In the wake of this tragedy, the CDC should adjust its numbers.

There won’t be 480,000 deaths from tobacco this year. There will be at least 480,001.

In the words of Eric Garner, “It stops today.” sj favicon 3

Photo: A memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement near the site of his death, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The wife of a man who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor. Eric was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)


solomon thumbnailSolomon Jones is an Essence bestselling author and award-winning columnist. He is the creator and editor of Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Solomon

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