The saddest thing about Eric Garner’s death is that it will be history in a year. We live in a nation where the death of one man no longer diminishes us all but becomes part of a parade of events on our televisions. We barely have time to digest one beheading, one horrifying accident, one murder before we move on. No one speaks of Caley Anthony now that her bio-mother has gone underground and she no longer drives media revenue through the coverage of a murder trial. At best, no one really spoke about her while her mother was on trial. Casey was the star and the center of our attention.
What Eric Garner’s death means to me is a bit more personal. Until thirteen years ago I lived in New York City, the last nineteen years in Manhattan. I was still there for the death of Amadou Diallo and several others. I had the vain hope that the people in my city had learned lesson from that painful, horrific crimes, but it seems that isn’t true. I see now that, for many of us, life has little value and it’s more an issue of whether you are seen as a winner or a loser in our country. Winners demonstrate their superior position when they can come out on top at the expense of losers. For those of us in the middle, it seem out of the realm of possibility for us to change things. And so we become apathetic.
What can be said about the pointless death of Eric Garner that will move us and unseat us from our apathy? For many people, all they will see of the man is the few seconds of sound byte file film that has been shown a hundred times on television; that is the only substance he’ll ever have. For those few seconds while we see the original story and coverage of the protests over his killer’s acquittal, we give a moment’s thought to a large, somewhat flamboyant man who was selling untaxed cigarettes on the streets of his own neighborhood. We will know that he couldn’t breathe because he told his attackers so in his own words on national television.
And there it will end for most us; finding the truth is not a popular pastime in America. We have too much to do to allow us the luxury of fixing what’s broken in our country. And, of course, there will be some other horror to take the place of this one.
Years ago there lived a man named Hillel. He lived during the time that Jesus walked the earth. Another great Rabbi, Hillel has left his mark upon history. His sayings have come down to us through the ages. Phrases like, “If not now, when?” appear over and over again in television and film, despite their two thousand year old lifespan. One of Hillel’s most famous quotes in wrapped in a story that goes like this:
One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, another learned Rabbi, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary–go and learn it!”
For hundreds of years there has been much argument of the meaning of the phrase “the rest is commentary”. It seems to imply that the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament from the Christian viewpoint, is simply a meaningless restatement of Hillel’s basic concept: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Though hundreds of scholars have expressed their opinion on this, I have always taken it mean that without moral grounding and fairness, all your actions in God’s name lack the true meaning of the God’s word. The old and new testament alike teach us that God’s vision of life on earth includes treating everyone as members of your own family; this has always been the highest of religious goals. This concept has been restated over and over again in our scripture.
How can we understand this in the case of Eric Garner? I am embarrassed to admit that I did not feel the full horror of what had happened until I had a chance to think about it. In my case, I had to strip off the New York politics that surrounded this. And then I had to see it from Eric Garner’s point of view which is what I should have done in the first place. We see so much violence on T.V. that we ignore its meaning and what a horror it actually is. We are numb because we hear too many horrible things in the span of an hour in the media. How can we resolve all of them in our minds?
So I tried to not think like a modern man in the heyday of the television generation. As I sifted through what Garner’s death really meant to me, I realized what it was that ate at me about this incident, what I should have felt immediately if I was in tune with God’s word. I put myself in Garner’s place.
If I was Eric Garner on that day, I wouldn’t have thought about the city I was in. I wouldn’t have thought about my race, police brutality or anything else. All I would have felt was the sudden and terrifying realization that I couldn’t breathe and that my faint pleas would go unheard while the breath was pushed out of my body. I would have known that I was being killed by people who could stop my death if only they had taken a second to ignore their lust for control and listen. I would have known that there was no mercy in the people that had me pinned to the ground. And then I would have known fear as I felt the life leaving me forever. I would have been afraid, dying as we all do, alone.
If we are truly all brothers beneath the skin, this is place where we are joined together. Alone, naked before God and afraid. This is the way we enter the world and this is the way we leave it. Looking at it that way, I don’t have any problem calling this a disgusting travesty of justice. I have already heard the arguments: Garner was big, Garner was involved in low level crime, and Garner was threatening and loud. He could have done some serious damage. Obviously that last part is not true. I have Asthma. There is a limit to what kind of physical activity you can engage in. A healthy person wouldn’t have come close to dying under the same circumstances.
Are there any arguments to justify what happened in Staten Island that day? Would any of us felt any different in those few moments if we were in Eric Garner’s place. And what’s to say that, short of making profound changes in our laws and our society, we never will find ourselves in his place.
Let’s just call it what it is. A man was killed for being loud and selling individual untaxed cigarettes and because he happened to encounter police that were amped up and willing to disregard the rules they were supposed to follow. That it happened in my home and nothing was done to make it right, disgusts me. Rather naïve, I agree; I come from New York and the saying about not being able to fight city hall is more than a saying. Despite his size and his bluster, Eric Garner was vulnerable, because he was black and because of his position on the New York food chain. Time is money in New York and money talks; the momentum that is New York could only proceed and brush this man under the rug.
Why is it so easy for us to be apathetic? The answer to that question lies beneath the rubble of hundreds of years of history, conquest, and Darwinian politics. I only know that this entire incident shows me we have drifted far away from our humanity and our connection to God. That a senseless death can become lost in the shuffle of politics and agenda demonstrates that a part of us has died along with Eric Garner.
Eric Garner has taught us the same lesson that Hillel taught to that gentile so many years ago. We’ve been taught that lesson daily since the days that he lived. We hear it in our houses of worship and in our scripture, regardless of our faith. We learn it and re-learn it on the news and in our media. And it never takes root.
All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.