The Value of a Life: A Few Loose Cigarettes


By now, we have all seen the video numerous times. It is probably fair to say that the video has been seen around the world by billions of people. Yet no matter how many times we see this video of New York City police officers accosting Eric Garner–insisting that he put his hands behind his back and then placing him in a chokehold until they forced him to the pavement in a prone position–no matter how many times the image is seared into our retinas and our collective memories, it loses none of its power to shock, terrify, and enrage us. But it is the lack of accountability and justice that leaves the lingering bad taste in our mouths.

Let us stipulate the facts and then make our conclusions. First of all, Eric Garner was approached by the police for the crime of selling “loosies”– individual loose cigarettes– on the sidewalk outside a store in the neighborhood where he and his family lived. What is the stated punishment for selling untaxed loose cigarettes in New York? It is a small monetary fine. Why then, we must ask, didn’t the officers issue a citation for Mr. Garner to appear in court at a future date? Why was it necessary to attempt to handcuff him, push him to the ground, place a leg across his throat, and obstruct his ability to breathe?

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

The punishment for selling untaxed cigarettes, in those few minutes of police overreaction, escalated from a monetary fine to death.

Whose problem is this now? The City of New York? The State of New York? The U.S. Department of Justice? No. It is our problem. It is everybody’s problem. And it is time we admitted what we would rather ignore: life in these United States has differing value based on the color of your skin. And we must, collectively, keep this issue on the front burner until it is dealt with and the problem of inequality is rectified. We must protest, we must organize, we must vote, we must demand action. Until all lives are equally precious in this nation, we must not rest or relent. This is the civil rights issue of our time, and to neglect it would be to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters who have just as much right to live in peace and prosperity, free of discrimination and profiling, as we do.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

One of the most eloquent voices during all of this turmoil has been New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who just last week said, “Black lives matter. That should be self-evident.” It most certainly should be, but when will it be evident to the police around this country who consistently classify citizens based on their skin color, their age, their clothes, their hair, the type of car they drive? When that day arrives, we can truly say we stand for what the Founding Fathers promised all of us: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Until all of us are truly equal and no longer suspect based on how we look, none of us will be able to breathe the air of freedom. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said with such perfect logic and love, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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