Identity is meaningless in isolation. You are not anything when you are alone. You’re identity only really kicks in when you are next to someone else and you can make a comparison. I am not sure I really it is possible to know oneself otherwise.
I was working at a restaurant while the Baltimore riots of 2015 were happening, and being a relatively lazy day at work I was exchanging my half-formed thoughts about what was going on with a colleague. I mentioned that the incident that most strongly held my sympathies was the case of Tamir Rice1, and this coworker gave me an answer I’ll never forget.
“Sure, but what was he doing in a park with a toy gun?”
In her defense, she immediately recognized the utter stupidity of what she said. But in that moment I could compare myself to her, and come away with an understanding of ourselves politically.
I Can’t Breathe, the famous last words of Eric Garner, gives a very detailed overview of the all the intertwined events that reached an apex of sorts with the death by strangulation of Eric Garner, and how that incident ended up being a boiling point of sorts for America’s obliviousness to police violence against African Americans. While focused on the incident with Eric Garner, the book does a lot to show that incidences like these are not in any way isolated, and that the ripples they create can travel across the country and affecting even the highest offices of the land.
Those to my right seem to operate on a couple of assumptions, and this book helps to correct those mistakes. The first assumption is that in these cases the people who end up victims of police violence are guilt of some crime themselves. Taibbi’s investigation shows that Mr. Garner at the time was merely a victim of police stigmatization, and had at that moment committed no crime.
The other assumption is that each case is isolated, and not coming from a systemic problem within America. To convince a person that a problem is systemic is difficult, and akin to convincing that a conspiracy is afoot 2. It is a lot easier to believe in the innocence of the system when, as is the case with much of what happened in New York to lead to these events, a lot of the factors appear isolated, and those there connections seem serendipitous at best. The work of connecting those dots must be rigorous, and Taibbi does a good job making it feel almost as if the fatal incidence was a calculated Rube Goldberg machine. That wasn’t exactly the case here; no one conspired to Kill Eric Garner, but believing that the system is innocent ends up feeling a lot more far fetched.
The answer my colleague gave me that day was borne of ignorance. I am glad books like this one exist to fight it.
1 For those of you who have forgotten, Tamir Rice was a 10 year old boy who was rapidly gunned down by the police while in a public park. He had with him at the time a toy gun, which was said to have provoked the incidence. However, the rapidity with which the police gunned him down seem to suggest that they were not really priming themselves to assess the situation before acting.
2 Before anyone gets to furious at that phrasing, there is nothing wrong with saying that something is a conspiracy if you’ve proven that that is exactly what it is. Most conspiracy are false. But they do sometimes exist.