The Staten Island grand jury decision to not bring to trial an NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner is a tragedy on many levels. First, there is the fundamental tragedy of an unarmed black man dying in police custody. Second, there is the additional outrage of each of us bearing witness to Garner’s death. It’s one thing for most people to read in the abstract about the disproportionate number of black men to white men who die in police custody—whether by gunshot or, in the case of Eric Garner, by a banned chokehold. But with social media, we must bear witness and see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, the pleas of a man pinned to the ground by police exclaiming, “I can’t breathe,” and then watch him pass into convulsions and death. It is gruesome. And it is wrong. It is also unjust.
The specter of injustice haunts the entire African American experience in the United States in ways this country’s Jewish community can only attempt to comprehend. For African Americans, brought to this country against their will as slaves, there would be 200 years of slavery followed by 100 years of endemic racism, lynching, and the denial of equal rights. As a nation we are far from the end of this tragic journey with miles to go. And a black man dying in police custody in Staten Island, or getting shot in Ferguson, or a housing project stairwell, is simply and unacceptably, an all too common event.
As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative continually reminds us, racism and poverty go hand in hand for the African American community. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One of three black men between ages 18 and 30 in America is either in jail, prison, probation, or on parole. Inequality—in schools, in the workplace, in housing, and before the law—is pervasive. America, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” has a long way to go.
When facing off with God over the potential miscarriage of justice—innocent lives being swept away with evil in Sodom and Gomorrah—Abraham famously said to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”
That is to say: We are all meant to be equal before the law. And the required sacred trust required between the citizenry and law enforcement officers—who, make no mistake about it, put their lives on the line to keep us all safe every day—is essential. We all must be held to the same standard of the law in the execution of the law in order for, to paraphrase Abraham, the law of the land to do justly.
The chokehold is an illegal move. Even in an NFL marred by its own despicable scandals these days, an illegal move is penalized. It is a tragic perpetuation of the legacy of injustice for blacks in America that a police officer is at the very least not being put to trial, where, with all evidence weighed in the light of day, he can be found innocent or guilty of taking a man’s life. And as Jews, as a people founded on such notions of a Just God being called to justice—and of a Civil Society founded on the idea of Equality Before the Law—we should find today’s ruling a grave injustice.
Andy Bachman is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. He is working on a book on contemporary Jewish life and will be leaving CBE in June to pursue projects related to social justice in New York and Israel.