How Wall Street Killed Eric GarnerDecember 4, 2014
Last night, I witnessed the chokehold death of Eric Garner. My fondness for television shows like Castle and Criminal Minds has familiarized me with dramatic death scenes. But this was no staged drama. It was the last moments of a real person’s life, recorded as he lay gasping for breath in the arms of another man. Even though the event took place several months ago, watching that video was every bit as horrifying as if Mr. Garner had been choked to death right in front of me. It will haunt me for a long time to come.
President Obama has promised that he is “not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.” That’s both good and important. Our legal system cannot serve unless and until all Americans can trust it to deliver equal justice under the law. Legal reform alone, however, will not be enough.
The financial meltdown of 2008, orchestrated by Wall Street financiers who were far more clever than smart, did profound and lasting damage to the American economy. Minority workers were hit hardest. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, median black household income was only 59% of median white household income in 2011, a wider gap than existed before the financial crisis. More recently, The Huffington Post reported that, at over 13 percent, the black unemployment rate was nearly twice that of whites. Underemployment for black workers was over 20 percent, compared to less than 12 percent for white workers. In other words, one third of black Americans are under- or unemployed and, again according to The Huffington Post, more than 11 million black Americans lived in poverty last year. Linking poverty and crime may be controversial, but there’s ample reason to believe that otherwise honest people who are desperate for money may be more likely to break the law to survive than people who have plenty.
The police reportedly approached Mr. Garner because they thought he was selling loose cigarettes for less than a dollar apiece. Selling “loosies” is a poor man’s crime, something white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff wouldn’t even consider. Perhaps, if Mr. Garner had been able to find a job that paid enough to feed his family, he wouldn’t have been out on the street in the first place and this tragedy would never have occurred.
Yes, we need to reform the legal system, but our financial system is in desperate need of reform as well. Economic inequality and lack of opportunity for minority workers are complex problems, not easily solved. But solve them we must if we want to prevent disasters like Eric Garner’s death from continuing to occur. America can, and must, do better.
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