IN 1991, a large black man was beaten by four white police officers. The videotaped attack appeared to be a clear case of police brutality. The black community was outraged, national publicity ensued, and the officers involved were criminally charged.
That was the case of Rodney King, whose videotaped police beating was remarkably similar to the case of Eric Garner, a large black man who was also physically accosted by four white police officers. The main difference is this: King lived to tell the story, but Garner did not.
Eric Garner – the new Rodney King
Eric Garner’s case is remarkably similar to that of Rodney King, a large black man who was also physically accosted by four white police officers. The main difference is this: King lived to tell the story, but Garner did not.
The Garner incident began when police attempted to arrest Garner for allegedly selling illegal loose cigarettes on a New York street. Garner resisted, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold.
“I can’t breathe!” the asthmatic Garner gasped several times. Minutes later, he was dead. The entire incident was caught on videotape, and on Friday, the New York Medical Examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.
Already, there are those who are declaring the Garner homicide an open and shut case against police. But the Rodney King debacle taught us that even videotape does not guarantee that abusive police will be convicted of criminal charges.
Rodney King – the first Eric Garner
In King’s case, police pulled him from his car after a high speed chase and beat him until his face was virtually unrecognizable. The officers—Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Kook—were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and related offenses.
King made a public appearance and famously said: “People, I just want to say, can’t we all get along?” Apparently we can’t, because more than 20 years after King was brutally beaten by police, Eric Garner’s case shows that not much has changed.
The trial in the racially charged case was moved from Los Angeles to Simi Valley, Calif., a predominantly white suburb, after defense attorneys argued that the publicity made it virtually impossible to have a fair trial in L.A.
After the change of venue, a jury comprised of 10 whites, one Latino, and an Asian found the officers not guilty. Los Angeles exploded as thousands rioted.
On the third day of riots that killed 50 people, injured 2,000 and caused $1 billion in property damage, King made a public appearance and famously said: “People, I just want to say, can’t we all get along? Can’t we all get along?”
Apparently we can’t, because more than 20 years after King was brutally beaten by police, Eric Garner’s case shows that not much has changed.
The parallels between Garner and King
Like King, Garner was six-foot-three, and like King, Garner was a black man who was attacked by four white police officers. The whole thing was on tape, just like in King’s case, and just like in the case of Rodney King, there is no guarantee that the police will be held accountable.
But even if the officers are charged and held for trial in connection with Eric Garner’s death, they could very well be acquitted, especially if Garner’s poor health and the fact that he resisted arrest are cited at trial as factors in his death.
Such an acquittal could lead to the same outcomes we saw in Rodney King’s case.
After the officers who beat him were acquitted, King received $3.8 million for his injuries in a civil trial. Garner was a married father of six, and while he is not alive to receive a large jury award, his family could sue.
In King’s case, when federal prosecutors brought Civil Rights charges, they won convictions against two of the four officers who beat King. Perhaps federal prosecutors will step into the Garner case, as well.
For now, though, we await the outcome of the investigation into the videotaped chokehold death of Eric Garner. We can only hope the aftermath won’t play out like Rodney King.
Click here to read more from Solomon Jones on Eric Garner.
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. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Solomon 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