Broken Country: On Reading "I Can't Breathe" by Matt Taibbi

The cover is by Greg Mollica. There's a link way down below to buy the book, which you should do.

The cover is by Greg Mollica. There's a link way down below to buy the book, which you should do.

Police business is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So we have to work with what we get.
— Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
And when they turned him over
They were surprised there was no gun
I mean he must have done something
Or else why would he have run
And they’ll spin it for the anchors
On the television screen
So we can shrug and let it happen
Without asking what it means
— Drive-By Truckers, "What It Means"*
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.
— Franz Kafka, The Trial, translated by Breon Mitchell

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street
Matt Taibbi
Reviewed by Alan Good

Before the Law, Part I

When Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York, hiked taxes on cigarettes, he opened space for a black market. Eric Garner entered that space, establishing an illegitimate business selling untaxed cigarettes (more precisely, less-taxed, since he would buy them in Virginia and bring them back to New York). When police officers tried to arrest him, for the umpteenth time, for selling loosies, they fucking killed him. If Eric Garner had been white he would have been a hero to conservatives, a working man just trying to get by and support his family, an outlaw standing up to Big Government bureaucracy and run-amok taxes, but Garner was black and not rich and not famous and not a fucking GOP toady, so white conservatives didn't—and still don't—give a fuck about his death.

Illusion of Innocence

It is possible to criticize the police without demonizing them; it is possible to respect the police without getting your nose brown. Matt Taibbi seems to be one of the few people capable of achieving either feat. American police deserve respect, and they deserve much criticism, and not enough people are capable of, or interested in, seeing how both of those statements can be true. I hate to make generalizations, but I'm going to do it right now anyway: we have a culture that seeks binaries and ignores duality. We want things to be clean and tidy, eithor/or. We can't see, for instance, how Philip Roth can be one of our greatest writers while also being frustratingly sexist. I chose Roth as an example because so much of his work is concerned with duality, with layers, with the many-facedness of humanity. The binary thinkers—either Roth is great or he's a pig, either cops are heroes or they're Fascist pigs—can't see (don't want to see?) how police can be good, do good work, be brave, genuinely strive to protect their communities, and also be criminals and abusers of power and cowards. The police are both protectors and oppressors (even in their authoritarian form, however, they're not so much oppressors as they are the foot soldiers of the oppressors).

Taibbi, a journalist and the author of several books, recognizes the dual nature of the police. Adherents of the religion of phony objectivity would criticize him for clearly favoring Eric Garner, whose final words, "I can't breathe," should be familiar to anyone who's been half-sentient in the last four years, and the Garner family over the police of Staten Island. The term is advocacy journalism, but if you're a journalist and you're not advocating for something in your work, what the fuck are you doing? There are two sides to every story, the objectivity cultists would say—and they are right; sometimes the truth is complex, layered, but sometimes when there are only two sides to a story it's because there is a right side and a wrong side. I guess you can san say Taibbi is biased, but you can't say he's unfair. He provides a more objective picture of the Eric Garner case than you're likely to get from more supposedly unbiased journalists. Anyone not suffering from headsofarupyourassyouthinkyourfartssmellliketictacsitis would recognize, without even reading I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, that the cops were in the wrong in every aspect of the Eric Garner case—from the policies that led to his targeting, to his fatal encounter with police, to the coverups, grandstanding, and stonewalling that followed his killing. You should still read the book. Taibbi, sympathetic to Garner, obviously convinced that his killing was an injustice, does not hide Garner's flaws or try to paint him as a hero or a martyr. Nor does he portray police as monsters. They're just cogs in a machine designed to generate statistics and keep affluent white people happy. Until cell phones got cameras, the machine worked pretty well. 

Videos of police brutality have forced white Americans to confront, or be confronted with while denying, the reality of segregation, discrimination, and injustice. Taibbi lays it all out clearly in this long passage: 

When the murder of Eric Garner hit the headlines, it at first seemed to lift the veil on the ongoing violence of racism and discrimination. There was debate, controversy, furor, disgust, and a great deal of finger-pointing, even from the majority segment of white America, over what to do abut the "unacceptable" problem.

But after a period of days or weeks, national media audiences exiled these red-hot stories to remote chambers of their memories. From there they become provincial tales, "black" controversies, troublesome things that happened once in a corner of society that still doesn't really concern most white Americans.

Huge portions of the country then wash their hands of the matter and leave others to deal with the things that sometimes happen in the places they don't think about. Baltimore. Ferguson. Staten Island.

This forgetting process is what police are for.

Aggressive policing maintains the reality of segregation in part by policing the borders separating poor black neighborhoods from affluent white ones.

But more important, it maintains the illusion of integration by allowing police officers to take the fall for policies driven by the white taxpayers on the other side of the blue wall.

Follow almost any of these police brutality cases to their logical conclusion and you will eventually work your way back to a monstrous truth. Most of this country is invested in perpetuating the nervous cease-fire of de facto segregation, with its "garrison state" of occupied ghettos that are carefully kept out of sight and mind.

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell technology and the instantaneous nature of modern media, those divisions became uglier and more visible after Eric Garner's death.

Here is where white people could have said stop. Of course, many white people spoke out, but many white people also donated money to support the legal defense of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner, the officer who had no reason to use violence or force when confronting Eric Garner, the officer who probably had no reason to confront Eric Garner on the day he killed him. While it's known that Garner sold loose cigarettes, while he was clearly targeted for selling loose cigarettes, "no official," Taibbi notes, "has ever said that Garner was actually selling cigarettes at that moment, except for the two police in the video, who at one point try lamely to argue that they saw Garner selling a cigarette—to Twin, who was in the middle of a fight the entire time."

Americans don't want to talk about segregation anymore. We don't want to believe that it still exists, but it does, as Taibbi reminds us: 

The civil rights movement, legislation, and milestone court decisions of the 1950s and '60s produced remarkable changes and ended or ramped down centuries of explicit, statutory discrimination. But real integration was not one of the accomplishments.

The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation.

Part of our segregation is visible in the way police treat white people vs. how they treat black people. "There are huge racial disparities in how US police use force," according to Vox"Black people," according to the Vox analysis of FBI data, "are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers." Black people are thirteen percent of the U.S. population, yet, according to Vox, thirty-one percent of the people killed by police in 2012 were black. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Stephon Clark. It just keeps happening. Black men get shot for holding cell phones, while white men who commit mass murder get picked up without violence. If they're lucky they get to stop at the drive-thru on the way to jail. You see this argument all the time on Twitter, every time a white man shoots up a school or a church or a concert and gets picked up by the police without getting shot full of holes. Just this week, in Canada, a motherfucker drove a van onto a sidewalk, killing ten people. When police showed up he told them to shoot him in the head. He told them he had a gun, to which one of the officers responded, "I don't care." They arrested him without murdering him. That's Canada, though. Maybe they have different policing. Here in America, where we value freedom and justice and faith, police arrested Dylann Roof, a racist white terrorist who killed nine black people as they worshiped in their church in South Carolina, without murdering him. Police arrested Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who killed three people in an attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, without murdering him. Police arrested the goddamn Aurora movie theater shooter without murdering him. But a black kid playing with a toy gun is shot dead. A black man with a cell phone is shot dead. Eric Garner gets choked to death for selling cigarettes. The circumstances and police tactics in these scenarios are different, of course, but you can see how it looks.

To add to the frustration, even though white people murder more police officers than any other demographic group**, the image in the public mind of a cop killer is of a black man. It was no accident that the playing up of a purported War on Cops coincided with the rise of Black Lives Matter.

The people who don't want be mad about the unjust killing of Eric Garner blame Garner for his own death. If he didn't want to die, they say, he shouldn't have broken the law, he should have complied, he shouldn't (I wish I was making this up; if you don't believe me read the comments on any article or prominent tweet about the Eric Garner case) have been so fat. No one ever explicitly states the logical conclusion, but reflexive defenders of the police use the same argument every time a cop kills an unarmed black man: if Person Y didn't want to get killed, he shouldn't have been a criminal. Ignoring, for now, the assumption of criminality, the argument suggests that police have a right to kill criminals without trial. I suspect some police would welcome such an ability; I hope that most would be repulsed at the idea. One could blame Hollywood for this mentality, but the blame really belongs to the people who can't distinguish fiction from reality: I enjoyed some of the Dirty Harry movies, but too many people who watch them see them as examples for how cops should actually behave and the sort of leeway cops should have in order to exact justice, at least against hippies and black people. 

Garner committed crimes, but he was hardly a dangerous criminal. Taibbi writes that Garner "had dealt with police at the street level only. He was killed in the end by a small group of line officers, the police equivalent of infantry. It was those men, not the generals above them, who became the villains in the headlines about Eric Garner's death. In police brutality cases the bad guy is always the individual cop, never the system behind him." Whenever a police officer does something bad, and there's no way to spin the officer as the real victim, he is described as a bad apple. Maybe the police union should change its name to The Fraternal Order of Bad Apples. That's sort of a cheap shot, and I'll be happy to delete when more good-apple police officers start speaking out against the bad apples. Police need better training, they need a culture that values accountability, de-escalation, and community, but no amount of training or technology is going to turn police into what we try to make them be: protectors/social workers/politicans/enforcers. The system is broken, the country is broken; police need to be better, citizens have a right to be angry when officers abuse their power, but our anger shouldn't be focused on front-line officers. We need to hold the motherfuckers above them accountable.

Taibbi is fair to the much-criticized Broken Windows theory, providing a brief history of the theory, as well as the man behind it. "Over the course of many conversations with George [Kelling]," Taibbi writes in the acknowledgments,

I came to believe that he was a misunderstood figure who may be unfairly maligned by history for having made a simple but brilliant observation about human behavior. I sense that Kelling himself feels that Broken Windows is a concept that evolved in directions he never foresaw, and that he's torn about its applications. On the one hand, he clearly believes in the efficacy of the concept as a policing tactic. But the mechanical or indiscriminate use of Broken Windows—what turned into "zero tolerance" policing—was to Kelling a bastardization of his ideas.

In application, Broken Windows has been a disaster, leading to infringements of people's Fourth Amendment rights. Call me biased, but I care more about civil liberties than low-level crime, and the system not only opens the door to abuse of authority and police law-breaking, it incentives that sort of bad behavior. Thanks to testilying and flash fiction police reports, much of the low-level crime that aggressive, statistics-based policing is supposed to combat doesn't even exist. Police have a quota and feel pressure from above to fill it. The consequences—police being too aggressive, officers inventing reasons to search people or lying about evidence in order to justify an arrest—of such a system should not be surprising. Taibbi also describes how, thanks largely to continued segregation, most of the people whose rights have been violated in the name of prioritizing so-called quality-of-life crimes have been people of color.

In the end, "Garner was caught in the crossfire of a thousand narratives that had little or nothing to do with him personally. Everything from a police commissioner's mania for statistics to the opportunistic avarice of real estate developers [which led to more police attention around the area where Garner sold cigarettes] had brought him in contact with police that day. So he was fighting one man who rode his back, but also history." 

Seems Like We're All Fucked

I Can't Breathe is about Eric Garner, a man who should have never been famous. It's about a system of policing that values statistics over humanity, community, or the law. It's about a country that is broken and divided. Toward the end of the book, Taibbi describes a march led by Garner's daughter, Erica, who died a few months after this book was published. There was tension among the marchers, some of whom "saw themselves as being much more grassroots and street oriented than other groups," a feeling that was reinforced when some members of a group called Justice League "arrived in Staten Island in a brand-new Lincoln Navigator." The march gets going. Erica leads chants and lies down in front of traffic. The marchers are segregated according to their group allegiance. The police are there with big-ass trucks and big-ass guns.

Tensions between the different groups of demonstrators finally boiled over and they were mostly all now standing there, split into two sides, pointing fingers and engaged in a ludicrous argument. The fighting-words moment had come when someone had accused someone else of being a fake, invoking the image of the Navigator car.

In response, one of the Justice Leaguers shouted back that having money didn't mean you weren't real. After all, the young man said, "Harry Belafonte led a revolution from a mansion!"

There was an outbreak of guffawing at this. A young woman shouted in response, "You did not just say that!"

While all this was going on, Erica quietly wandered around the corner to walk up Victory and have a look at the gathered police force.

Here is a metaphor for America: Dan Donovan, the prosecutor who threw the fight in the prosecution against Eric Garner's killer, leveraged his new celebrity from the case into a political victory, winning election, as a Republican, to the New York House of Representatives. Meanwhile the people who actually want justice for Garner fight amongst themselves.

(Here's an update on the Garner case, courtesy of The New York Times: "Federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charges against a New York police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, three current and former officials said, but top Justice Department officials have expressed strong reservations about whether to move forward with a case they say may not be winnable." The Times can't say this because it has certain standards, but "top Justice Department officials have expressed strong reservations" is code for "top Justice Department officials don't give a fuck.") 

While conservatives pule about political correctness—while Democrats argue about who's a real Democrat—Eric Garner rots, and his killer collects a paycheck from the state. A fight for justice has been co-opted, sucked up into an asinine culture war about respecting the national goddamn anthem.

Before the Law, Part II

Anyone who has lost a loved one to police violence and had to deal with the bureaucracy of justice will probably relate to this excerpt of "Before the Law," a parable contained in Franz Kafka's The Trial:

"Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can't grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he'll be allowed to enter later. 'It's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but not now.' Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior. When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: 'If you're so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I've forbidden it. But bear this in mind: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before. The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.' The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar's beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him he still can't admit him."

Some people read Kafka and think, "What a nightmare." Some people read Kafka and think, "Yes, let's do that." America is a never-ending Kafka novel. 


I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street
Matt Taibbi
Spiegel & Grau-Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8884-0
$28

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Notes

*I'd have liked to quote every line of "White It Means," by the Drive-By Truckers, but that would have eaten up a lot of space and pushed the limits of copyright. Patterson Hood, the group's singer, told The Guardian that "There needs to be more middle-aged southern dudes saying that black lives matter."

**In 2016, according to FBI data, sixty-six police officers were killed in "felonious incidents." Of the fifty-nine assailants identified in these killings, fifty-five of whom were male (the gender of the other four was not reported), at least thirty-two were white. The ethnicity of eleven of the assailants was unreported. The data shows that fifteen assailants were black, so it's possible that twenty-six of the people who feloniously killed police officers in 2016 were black; it's equally possible that forty-three of those assailants were white. It's possible, probably more likely, that the eleven unknowns, if we knew more about them, would be split among different groups. The point is the same, though: the poster boy for the so-called War on Cops is a black man when it should be a white man. It's all here: https://ucr.fbi.gov/leoka/2016/officers-feloniously-killed/felonious_topic_page_-2016.