Home Bookend - Where reading meets review I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

by Venky

Matt Taibbi has penned an essential, excoriating and evocative work that can be considered to be a pioneering effort in the realm of Social Sciences. On the 17th of July 2014, forty four year old Eric Garner was put in a choke-hold (a maneuver deemed to be illegal by the Police Department decades ago), by an officer of the New York Police Department, Daniel Pantaleo. After Pantaleo removed his arm from Garner’s neck, he pushed the side of Garner’s face into the ground while four officers moved to restrain Garner, who repeated “I can’t breathe” eleven times while lying facedown on the sidewalk. Garner remained lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes while the officers waited for an ambulance to arrive. The EMTs did not perform CPR on Garner at the scene. He was pronounced dead at the hospital approximately one hour later. Garner’s crime: “suspicious of selling ‘loosies’ (loose cigarettes) from packets bereft of tax stamps”. But did Garner’s crime predominantly reflected the fact that he was also black?

Matt Taibbi takes on this crucial question in this riveting and fascinating book that deals with urgent but seemingly intractable issues such as racial profiling, police brutality and intransigence of policy makers and legislators alike in redressing a situation that is swiftly taking on grave proportions thereby polarising the American society. Although focusing on the Garner case, Taibbi sketches out the evolution of radical, draconian and antediluvian police policies such as ‘Broken Windows’ and ‘Clean Halls’, the outcome of which resulted in dire, incredulous and selective violations of privacy, dignity and self esteem of people whose sole crime lay in the fact of their dwelling in a particular neighbourhood and most importantly, in the targeted individuals being black. 

Stop-and-Frisk measures which gave unencumbered and unwarranted (no pun intended) powers to the police, had cops stripping random individuals in full glare of the public, violating their person by subjecting them to humiliating cavity searches and desecrating their very self esteem. This dastardly act was soon termed by the affected individuals as an exercise in “social raping”. As Taibbi quoting a convict turned coloured cop Pedro Serrano, emphasises, “The streets may seem free and public, but they don’t belong to you. You walk down them at someone else’s pleasure, with someone else’s permission”. The language some of the cops used did nothing to sugar coat an outlook dripping with racism. Upon sighting blacks in a neighbourhood that was under police surveillance, they would exclaim, “Look at these fuckin’ animals. Look at these savages.”

Matt Taibbi also demonstrates in heart wrenching and rage inducing detail, the chicanery and deviousness resorted to by the policy mavens and law makers alike to deny justice to the oppressed and obfuscating every move made by public interest groups such as NYCLU, Legal Aid and NAACP to fight for the truth. Making liberal use of legal loopholes and taking advantage of stray incidents of violence perpetrated against cops, the city administration builds up a powerful construct of lies, bureaucracy and brazen bias to thwart the attempts made by either the affected or the family (where the deceased has been a victim of police brutality and misdemeanor) to bring the culprits to book. 

Extraneous influences also adds to the impression that the need of the hour is for more and not less policing the streets. For example, the extraordinarily over rated Malcom Gladwell in his bestselling ‘Tipping Point’, tried to make America believe that “making little changes in an environment can bring about big results and you can fight crime the same way you start a fashion trend.” These kinds of endorsements not only made policies such as Broken Windows merely popular but a household rage. In fact as early as 1996, the Special Crime Unit (“SCU”) of the NYPD has printed T-shirts adorned by the following quote by Hemingway:


As Matt Taibbi chillingly demonstrates, the Eric Garner case is just one in a long litter of litany that has at its frontispiece the utter dereliction of duty and a shameful disregard for the value of life. As the victims, so the prosecutors. As defenseless the victims, as indifferent the laws and lawmakers. As Taibbi points out “from Powell to Sayon to Garner, from Hogan to Murphy to Donovan, very little in these stories have changed except the names.”

While the family of Eric Garner, after a prolonged and exhausting joust with the law, gave in to fatigue and a consequent settlement of US$5 million, the black population continues to take water in the form of racial persecution and dog-whistle pretensions at equality. In the words of Taibbi, “half a century after the civil rights movement, white Americans do not want to know this man. They do not want him walking in their neighbourhoods. They want him moved off the corner. Even white liberals seen to, deep down inside, if the policies they advocate, and the individual choices they make are any indication.”

Eric Garner’s ebullience and egregious nature became too much of an eyesore for the elitist occupants of high rise condominiums just across the street from where his overwhelming personality was a permanent fixture, although not even a tad bit damaging. But as Taibbi concludes “even allowing him a few feet of sidewalk space was ultimately too much. His world got smaller and smaller until finally even his last breath of air was taken away from him. He was finally deemed greedy for wanting even that much.”

With the election of the incendiary, pompous, intimidating caricature of a brute to the highest office, it is with trepidation that a part of America goes about its livelihood. Walls, physical, symbolic as well as metaphorical are cleaving the population of an economy measures superiority in purely monetary terms and racial overtones. Overtones which mean that even in a century highlighted by unimaginable progress in technology, science and the arts, being born of a particular colour is still considered to be a debilitating curse!

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