Dec 7, 2014

Power Corrupts, And Sometimes An Innocent Man Ends Up Dead

Eric Garner's death and the aftermath of it demonstrate two important lessons about the nature of power.

One lesson: When people have power over others, they are tempted to abuse it.

We don’t know why officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, pinned him to the sidewalk, kept the chokehold for 10 seconds and then pressed Garner’s head into the pavement. But here’s one very possible explanation: he did it because he could. -Physically, he could: Pantaleo is muscular, and clearly he had trained in takedowns. He had worked hard to acquire the strength and skills to take down a bigger man. Here was his chance to use that power.

But Garner's death demonstrates this danger of power in more general senses, too.

Police power is always and everywhere vulnerable to abuse — police are given a near-monopoly on the legal use of violence. This is why modern governments place so many restrictions on cops.

Garner's death, like Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., has a racial angle as well. If not originally about race, both killings have become about race, because of America's ugly history of the law mistreating blacks. This history is a story of power: giving people power over others tempts them to abuse that power.

Comedian Chris Rock had a decent explanation of race in America, from slavery and Jim Crow to today: “White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy.”

But why were white people crazy? What’s made us less crazy? Is it fluoride in the water? Climate change?

No. Whites were more racist against blacks in the past because society had given them power over blacks — at first explicitly and brutally in slavery, then still officially but less violently through segregation and Jim Crow. Even after Jim Crow, social and governmental structures persisted that gave whites power over blacks, and this power, to borrow Chris Rock’s phrase, made white people crazy.

Today there are fewer settings where white people explicitly have power over black people, and so we’re “not as crazy.”

The second lesson about power comes from the failure to indict Pantaleo. We don’t know what evidence the grand jury saw or heard beyond what the public has seen or heard. But we do know this: Prosecutors and police are partners. Simply to do their jobs well, police need prosecutors to be allies, and prosecutors need police.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan won re-election in 2011 with the endorsement and support of the police unions. Consider the lead paragraph of this Staten Island Advance article from 2011: “Saying he was their ‘partner’ in fighting crime, a passel of law enforcement unions yesterday endorsed GOP District Attorney Daniel Donovan for a third term in office.”

It’s great that Donovan and the police have a strong relationship. But how can we ask Donovan to prosecute his “partners”? That dynamic is why the public is so skeptical of the prosecutors who failed to get indictments in both Garner's and Brown's deaths.

These sorts of conflicts of interest are inherent in government. We have no choice but to delegate the power to government officials, but once we do that, we create a circle of insiders who have the power to protect and reward one another at the expense of all outsiders. Sometimes this manifests itself as crony capitalism. Sometimes it elevates insiders above the rule of law.

As long as we have governments and police, we can't completely avoid these problems of power. We can, however, make rules that reduce the likelihood of abuses.

In New York, two such rules were already in place: The NYPD banned chokeholds like the one Pantaleo used on Garner; and the district attorney is elected, so the people can punish Donovan if they think he's not doing his job. But these rules weren't enough to save Garner's life.

Power over others, we are reminded this week, is terrible beast that is difficult to tame. –Washington Examiner

No comments:

Post a Comment