They’re gathering in Union Square downtown tonight in New York, and outside Rockefeller Center. Another protest in America, for the same reason — a grand jury finding that there should be no prosecution in the killing of a black man by police.

The man in question this time was Eric Garner, a big guy — more than 350 pounds — in his mid-40s, whose particular gig was selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Four months ago, he was doing so — allegedly — on the main street of Tompkinsville, a non-white area of mostly white Staten Island, when he was approached by an undercover cop.

When he yelled that he was being harassed, the cop and several others piled on, pinning him to the ground and putting him in a chokehold. Garner, asthmatic and unhealthy, yelled that he couldn’t breathe and rapidly went into cardiac arrest. He died on the spot. The incident was caught on phone video, just a month before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson.

Whatever the ins and outs of the Mike Brown case, it appeared to many that the Eric Garner case was more straightforward. No one was alleging that Garner had attacked the police or was armed — they couldn’t because the whole thing was on video — and the New York police were banned from using the chokehold sometime ago. When the case went to the coroner, it was ruled a homicide.

So it was as clear a case as you can get. A special grand jury was empanelled, met for 25 sessions over four months, and once again refused to indict, as has occurred in 80 of 81 different occasions when police officers were facing indictment (and which occurs in less than 1% of non-police indictments). The situation makes the institutionalised bias of the system as stark as possible. Plus, the white-on-black nature of the death — white local cops beating a black man in a onetime largely white community that looks askance at the recent growth of black and Latino areas — made it about as symbolic as these things get.

So why did Staten Island not rise up, as Ferguson did, over a case that has none of the muddiness of Ferguson? The answer is partly in the common-or-garden nature of the death, so to speak, a plain old bodycrush on a sick guy. Ferguson has the air of a police execution, an enraged white cop shooting a black man in the head from a distance, after an initial scuffle.

“Nothing will change in particular until the culture of fear in general changes.”

But it also has to do with space and place and organisation. New York City has a pretty fractured set of black organisations, whereas St Louis had one big one — the Organization For Black Struggle, formed out of the ashes of the civil rights movement in the early ’70s, and capable of connecting with the protesters in a large black community. Staten Island is the essence of suburbia, with water to cut it off from the rest of the world. The energy doesn’t flow the same way.

Nor are the local white representatives, erm, sympathetic. Staten Island congressman Michael Grimm is currently awaiting 20 charges on various corruption matters — he faced them during the election and still won — and Long Island rep, the odious Peter King, doubted that Garner was choking at all — “if you’re choking, you can’t speak”. Jesus.

With the state declining to prosecute, the federal government may step in. In the bizarre world of American law, Daniel Pantaleo — the officer who put Garner in a hold, and who has two judgements for abusive behaviour against him already — can be charged with violating Garner’s civil rights. That can still earn him a prison term. There will be other cases, such as the 12-year-old in Cleveland two weeks ago who was playing with a toy gun in the park and was shot dead by cops two seconds after the warning was given.

The truth is that fear has become the pervasive medium of American life. A general medium, with specific features related to race. Increasing numbers of white Americans look at these absurd, brutal situations and see them as reasonable only because the notion of innocence and guilt has been reversed, especially for black citizens. In Oakland, the white ‘burb north of Detroit, a black man was arrested last week for walking past a store with his hands in his pockets. The police chief explained it perfectly reasonably: there’s been a lot of robberies, and people want to feel safe. Note which people. As Stephen Colbert noted, “remember — the pocket is the holster of the fist”.

Nothing will change in particular until the culture of fear in general changes. And that won’t change until there is a deeper cultural-economic shift in America. But for the moment, what can you do but protest it where it’s found? Thus tonight, because touch one, touch all, I will go to the march to protest the killing of a fat bloke who sold cigarettes on one island once, in the middle of a raging sea.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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