Eric Garner’s death is a tragedy – but it isn’t just American tragedy

In Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to be black.

In Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to be black

The man being choked by the police in the video is Eric Garner. His last words were “I can’t breathe!”. He died shortly after this video was filmed.

Astonishingly, a grand jury decided not to indict any of the police officers involved in Garner’s death. As a result, protests have erupted in New York and elsewhere demanding change as the brutal passing of yet another black man at the hands of the police looks like it will go unpunished.

There is a grim familiarity to events like this. For many of us Garner’s death once again provides an opportunity to shake our heads and tut at America’s failure to tackle one of the most glaring inequalities between white and black – the likelihood of being killed by the very people that are there to offer protection.

Some will of course describe the killing of Garner as ‘unfortunate’ or the result of a ‘few bad apples’, but the statistics tell a different story. According to FBI data, those killed by police in the US are disproportionately black.

(ht Vox).

Other forms of oppression also persist. While African-Americans make up 13.1 per cent of the US population, they constitute nearly 40 per cent of the prison population. Many are arrested for drug offences. Despite African-Americans using or selling drugs at the same rate as whites, they remain 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug offences than whites.

The mistake, however, is to interpret this as a uniquely American phenomenon. Indeed, the US may come in for the most criticism when it comes to deaths of non-white people in police custody, but in this country we have little reason to be smug: it’s a problem here too.

In Britain 827 people have died during or following police contact since 2004. According to Inquest, a charity that monitors deaths in police custody, a disproportionate number of those who have died in or shortly after being taken into police custody following the use of force were from black and minority ethnic communities (BAME).

Total BAME deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police, England & Wales 1990-date
Type Metropolitan Police Other Forces Total
Custody 76 61 137
Shooting 7 2 9
All custody and shooting deaths 83 64 147

Source: INQUEST casework and monitoring

And while it looks like no police offers will be held to account for Eric Garner’s tragic death, there hasn’t been a successful prosecution of a police officer implicated in the death of anyone in Britain since 1969, despite, since 1990, there being nine unlawful killing verdicts returned by juries at inquests into deaths involving the police and one unlawful killing verdict recorded by a public inquiry.

In other words, it’s easy to sneer at the violence and structural racism apparent in American society and write it off as some sort of American exceptionalism. America is after all vastly economically unequal, has a history of discriminating against minorities and has a tooled up police force.

All true of course, but we ought also to look closer to home before rushing to pass judgement: in Britain too police custody can be a dangerous place, especially if you happen to have the ‘wrong’ skin colour.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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28 Responses to “Eric Garner’s death is a tragedy – but it isn’t just American tragedy”

  1. damon

    This discussion can’t get a fair hearing, because most people come to it with prejudiced baggage from the start. From both sides.
    What’s the bottom line here – that police are racists? That white people are racists?
    Who is to ”police” the streets if not the police? I remember what Railton Road in Brixton was like in the 1980s – The Front line it was called. Can you imagine how hard it was to police there? If you sent two police down to an incident they could get beaten up, and if you sent a van load it could cause a riot.
    Are people saying that police shouldn’t lay their hands on people who resist being manhandled? That would be a consequence of what the OP here seems to be suggesting.
    The people who marched on Tottenham police station after Mark Duggan was killed, caused the riots in which others were killed and many people were hurt. Whether the policeman who fired the fatal shot at Mark Duggan did the right thing or not is not really the point. When firearms are involved, people can be killed, and Duggan was chancing his life with the lifestyle he was living. Its the same all over the world when police carry guns.

    I don’t have a problem with someone saying the police can be too macho.
    They can be. I saw loads of them in Parliament Square on November the 5th and they were all dressed up in their action gear, probably hoping for a bit of drama.
    But I doubt that many of them are capable of racist murder, which is what some of the ”No justice – No peace” brigade imply.
    These American cops in New York look terribly complacent though.
    I’d say they just need better training.

  2. swat

    Black Youth must change its ‘attitude’ to Authority if we are to make any progress in this matter. Its their reactiomn to being stopped that is the problem, and gets them into more trouble than they bargained for. Police are in a very difficult situation. Those thehy apprehend are on the whole villans, not meek old ladies who just want to cross the road. The presumption must be that the person you stop is going to ‘lose it’ and attack you viciously; thats what the police must fear all the time.

  3. Michael Simpson

    Your comment has a long, racist lineage. Allusions to black criminality was also the prop used to ignore lynching in the American south.

  4. damon

    I still remember the names of some of these London teenagers killed in 2007.
    I don’t think one of was killed by a white person.

    It’s that what the police are up against.
    I’d be interested to hear about how they should go about things differently, as they try to keep the numbers of these victims down.

  5. TN

    The fact this ignorant comment has even one up vote just shows what kind of people read this blog.

  6. JohnRich

    A jury hear all the evidence. A jury made its decision.

    Mob rule is not the answer.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    And where was that talked about?

  8. Guest

    Ah yes, it needs to be cringingly subservient to the White Masters in Authoriti.

    Heard it before, as you blame people for being criminals for the police stopping them, as you stereotype black people.

  9. Guest

    The police being the enemy of the communities, being “up against them”, is precisely what causes problems in the first place because people don’t trust the police to defend them, and that’s known.

    They and you are not interested in keeping the number of victims down, or you’d not be talking about it in that way.

  10. Sparky

    “…as you blame people for being criminals…”

    If they’re not to blame, it’s wrong to punish them.

  11. Michael Simpson

    Ian Huntley, Steve Wright, Peter Sutcliffe.

  12. damon

    Bizarre comments.
    The police aren’t any community’s enemy, and those that think so are part of the problem.
    Policing is a really difficult task because nearly everyone resents being controlled. And that’s the police’s job. To police that ten per cent (I hear) of drivers who are driving without all the proper insurance and documentation – for example.
    How do you do that in a non racist way when minority people are more likely to be poorer, and people who can’t afford to run cars totally legally are likely to be young and poorer? You are going to end up profiling. Just looking at drivers and working on hunches.
    In some parts of London, young black men have 50% rates of unemployment, so are bound to come to the police’s attention more.
    Because of the lifestyle and culture of urban youth in England.
    If you don’t work but are visibly consuming, then the police will be suspicious. In what other countries is it different?
    It’s certainly far worse in any African or Caribbean country, where bad mouthing the police will get you severely beaten. British police are far far better. Even too soft perhaps. Giving them abuse is practically allowed. They take it.
    We might need better training with our firearms units perhaps.
    But at the end of the day, it always comes down to individuals, and they can get it wrong. Like the police in New York seem to have.
    But what do you do when someone tells the police to clear off and leave him alone, when they are just policing a situation?
    Selling cigarettes is hardly a crime, but you might have to move people on and ”police” them. Otherwise it’s an urban jungle.
    But when the person says ”No, bugger off and leave me alone” – what are the police supposed to do – just do that?

  13. Guest

    Sure. But swat doesn’t feel that way.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, yours are, as you make excuses for the Police, and call entire communities the problem – the excessive force the Police use isn’t in your world, right.

    That you think it’s the Police’s job to control everyone really says it all, as you blame people for their poverty, etc, say the police should be harassing the poor more, etc – that the “lifestyle and culture” of claiming the benefits you’re entitled to should make you a target, etc.

    As ever, you’re making excuses for the police.
    And the Police are supposed to not harass innocent people. But no, to you that’s “too soft”, you’re fine with anything except “severe” beatings…so just mild ones for crossing their paths, right right.

    You want the Urban Jungle, where the Pigs are just the biggest and most powerful gang on the bloc. Where there’s different laws for different people, etc.

  15. damon

    Look, sorry ”Guest” – I was looking for a little grown up conversation.
    The main post attracted me because it’s a subject that I find very intrriguing.

    Check this guy John McWhorter out and get back to me.

  16. Sparky

    Which criminals do you think are not to blame and shouldnt be punished?

  17. Guest

    Oh, so you were looking for your ideology. Try the Torygraph.

    Check this guy RandomLink out and get back to me.


  18. Guest

    Do try reading my post.
    I’m not pushing your line there.

  19. damon

    You’re just proving the point I made in my first post here.
    And check out the nonsense ”Comment is free” posting in the Guardian today by this by a British black guy who’s just gone to live in New York.
    Absolute pants.

    There’s a debate to be had on all this, but where’s it to be had?

    And by the way, that previous link I did was by one of the finest commentators on this wider subject of race in America.
    I think so anyway.
    If you know of him already, then you might think he’s a ”coconut” or something, but he’s very perceptive I think.

  20. swat

    OK, the next time your house is burgled, or you are involved in a road rage incident, or attacked by a rabid UKIPPER or Islamofacist, I’d like to know who you are going to turn to for help? We have to rely on the Police; that means treating them with abit of respect; and i don’t see that from the youth these days black or white.There is a culture developing of ‘dishing’ the Police, and its unhealthy. Yes, there are some rotten apples in the bunch and some racist/BNP leaning officers, but that is only a minority.Whistleblowing and Scrutiny will weed them out.

  21. Guest

    I’m proving that police thuggery is fine and dandy? I see. Wait, no, you’re justifying it to yourself.

    As you decry community solidarity and entirely legitimate worries.
    Debate? There is no debate about excessive police violence, it’s plain bad.

    And yes, of course random unexplained links are great! Er…
    (An article at a URL which I recognise, now…)

  22. Guest

    Why would I call the police, and make things worse?

    Unhealthy is calling the police to anything less than a murder, as far as I can see. They’re not weeded out, and the police fight tooth and nail in the courts to prevent change.

    Oh, it might be different (and is) outside London, but the Met…has not changed for decades in it’s attitudes. They sparked the London Riots when they had every chance to prevent them.

  23. Sparky

    My statement: “if they’re not to blame it’s wrong to punish them.”

    Your response: “Sure.”

  24. damon

    Go and look at one of the worst Guardian comment pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s from today, and titled ”Dear white people”.
    Maybe it’s a spoof and I just don’t realise.
    But I think it might actually be real – and a sign of where we are today. Which is not a good place if you read that and some of the comments under it.

  25. Guest

    No surprise you’re using one letter to try and paint a general attitude.

  26. Guest

    If they’re not to blame, not criminals, then they should NOT BE PUNISHED.


  27. damon

    You’re being a bit tiresome Leon.
    That was ”a letter” sanctioned by the Guardian.

    This is my view pretty much:

    ”Progressives are now the most fervent promoters of racialised thinking”

  28. Michael

    Statistics are informative and useful. They also lead to stereotyping and racial profiling. This is not just a US problem but also a UK one too. The US Attorney General Eric Holder Announced Federal Restrictions And Bans On Racial Profiling last week I believe.

    I have written a blog post touching on the Stereotyping issues. Please take a look.

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