Grief and the struggle for social justice are often intertwined. There is a long history of marginalized groups channeling their grief into political action, as in the case of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant shot by police in 1999. His murder sparked fierce outrage and people took to the streets to express their anger and to demand justice. These demonstrations brought much-needed attention to the issue of racism that plagues American society. People of color are disproportionately targeted by police and subjected to aggressive and excessive brutality.
In college, I remember a class in which several African American women students expressed their profound concern for their sons. They knew that when they sent their sons into our racist society, they were at great risk of suffering bodily harm by police officers and other people. I still think about those women and the fear, anxiety, and helplessness they must feel each day when they kiss their children good-bye not knowing what might happen to them.
We want to protect the people we love, but we live in a society where not all people count as human. People of color, women, people who are queer, trans*, poor, and disabled all experience various forms of systemic violence. As someone who lives at the intersection of several marginalized identities, as a poor, disabled woman, I have seen firsthand what it's like to be devalued and dehumanized and to watch the lives of those I love also be devalued. It's traumatic and infuriating, but I think we have to find ways to fight back, to resist oppression and silencing.
Once again, people are taking to the streets and making their voices heard in the wake of a deadly incident of police brutality. Eric Garner, a father of six, was put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer and later died. The entire altercation was caught on camera and shows Garner yelling that he cannot breathe. As his body lies lifeless on the street, EMT workers make no attempt to perform CPR or to save his life. At the end of the video, the man who put Garner in the chokehold smiles and waves at the camera. So far, no one involved in the incident has lost their job or been severely reprimanded. I doubt they even feel remorse. In their eyes, Garner was not a human being; he was not worth respecting and certainly not worth saving. As Al Sharpton put it "When does your sense of humanity kick in? Have we gotten so cold?"
We have not gotten cold, we have been cold. America is not special or exceptional, though we are exceptionally violent. We are not post-racial. We are brutal and inhumane. We incarcerate people of color, support the murderous regime in Israel, we ignore the hundreds of thousands of people we killed in Iraq, and we care nothing about the hundreds of Gazans who are dying right now. We care nothing about the people dying in our own nation.
Eric Garner's friends and family joined protesters to demand an investigation into his death. They want answers and they deserve them. They want justice and they should have it. Eric Garner was a human being. He had children and a wife and a mother. His life mattered. During the protest, Garner's widow, Esaw, broke down and could not speak, her grief so enormous and overwhelming that she almost could not stand and had to be held up by other people. Garner's 18-year-old son, also named Eric, has spoken out, expressing his hope that the officer who placed his father in the chokehold will be brought to justice. The young man shared his father's last words to him: "He was telling me how he was proud of me...the first person in my family to go to college." When he starts college in the fall, his father will not be there to see it.
Images and quotes via The New York Daily News