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The System Worked, and That’s Wrong: The Murder of Eric Gardner

A grand jury yesterday chose to not bring charges against a New York police officer for his part in killing Eric Gardner. Gardner was an unarmed man accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes in front of a store on Staten Island. His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. The act was captured in its entirety on video. See it here.

Did you watch the video? The question almost every person asks at that point is the same: how could that cop not be indicted for some type of crime?

What play out as racist and fascist actions in our “justice” system are built right into the law.

Finding a cop indictable, never mind guilty, is very difficult. The law heavily presumes the cop did the right thing, well beyond the concept of innocent until proven guilty. With the police, the presumption is that the act of violence was justified, and through that, that the cop is innocent.

In a civilian murder case, absent self-defense, the presumption is that you have no inherent right, never mind a duty, to kill someone.

Meanwhile, keep in mind every cop is empowered to take a life any day of the week. The standard is low, conveying something like the cop felt his life or someone else’s was threatened, or believed the (dead) man had a weapon, or the like. It is based on what was happening inside the cop’s head, not on what actually took place on the ground. Tremendous discretion is given to the cop, acting “under the circumstances.” These cases are by definition decided from the perspective of the cop, not the victim or society.

For example, a lay explanation of the law governing the use of deadly force by cops, as determined by two Supreme Court cases, is that the cop reasonably believed at that moment that he or others were in imminent danger. It does not matter whether any danger actually existed.

The intention of the officer is thus critical, often overshadowing the statements of witnesses or even a video of the killing itself. None of that can show what the cop was thinking, and a grand jury essentially has to decide if they believe what the cop tells them or not. Throw into that pot a jury that may be biased toward authority, and/or a jury that is made up of racist people, and you have some answers to how cases like those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner end up as they do.

I understand most cops are not bad people, that all cops have a difficult job, that it is easy to Monday morning quarterback, along with the rest of the standard arguments. Those do apply to specific cases, but when you look at these cop-on-black actions in the aggregate in general, and the lack of accountability for the deaths in the particular, the patterns are clear enough that we can come to conclusions.

The legal basis for a grand jury’s decision in a cop case was not created and is not maintained in a vacuum. The system works exactly the way it is supposed to work.

Understand that and the rest of what is going on in our streets falls into place.


Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.