The death of Eric Garner demands prompt answers

7/24/2014, 3:43 p.m.

Just this week, there was the candlelight march on Staten Island, complete with neighborhood mourners, a grieving widow and lingering questions about the senseless death of yet another unarmed African-American man at the hands of police.

The death of Eric Garner has resonated far beyond the sidewalk and community where it took place. Garner was stopped by police who were seeking to arrest him last week for selling loose cigarettes. He maintained that he had done nothing of the kind and that they allow him to remain free. The officers decided instead to take him into custody, using a chokehold to make their point, although the maneuver is banned by the New York City Police Department.

Within minutes, the 350-pound giant of a man with asthma was on the ground. “I can’t breathe,” he told the officer no fewer than six times before finally becoming unconscious. All of this was captured in a chilling video by an onlooker, a scene that became viral with lightning speed. In the video, it’s clearly seen how the frenzy of police and bystander activity suddenly becomes unsettling silence. Garner was pronounced dead within the hour.

Police Commissioner William Bratton has called for an investigation into the behavior of the officers, particularly that of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold seemed to set the stage for Garner’s death. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to get to the bottom of the incident. No doubt, there will a good deal of review of the events of that fateful Friday afternoon.

But at the heart of the matter is something as old as the relationship between police officers and the communities of color in which they operate. The officers at the scene on Staten Island somehow failed to view the 43-year-old father of six as a human being, whose alleged transgressions were of little to no consequence in the grand scheme of things and must be regulated at any cost.

Garner was not accused of terrorizing a community. He had no weapons and had not threatened anyone with violence. The biggest threat he posed to the community, according to police, was to provide individual cigarettes to buyers for $1 apiece, hardly a severe menace to that Staten Island community. And for that, he lay dead within an hour of the confrontation with New York’s Finest.

Garner’s true offense, apparently, was his unwillingness to be commanded by the police. The officers involved seemed to be intolerant of this man’s unwillingness to go quickly and in a subservient fashion into their custody. Had the officers been more astute, they might have concluded that this huge man might well have been prone to suffering from respiratory problems and that a chokehold might produce undesirable results.

It is now the time for New Yorkers to demand answers to this tragedy. Elected officials and clergy, neighborhood groups and civic organizations must produce impassioned calls for the New York Police Department to live by its own rules.