Every time I comfort a grieving family member who has lost a loved one to police brutality, I hope and pray that it will be the last time. But deep down, I know it won't be.
Saturday morning, I was joined at National Action Network's (NAN) weekly rally by relatives of the late Eric Garner, a father of six who died as police officers in Staten Island placed him in an illegal chokehold. At our rally, Garner's widow was so overcome with grief that she collapsed on stage right near me as several of us then rushed to assist her. NAN also held a march in Staten Island over the weekend after family members came to us for help, and I preached at Riverside Church in Manhattan yesterday to call for a restoration of humanity. As Garner's children have to face the harsh reality of living without their father for the rest of their lives, we must demand that they receive justice. At the same time, NAN's Los Angeles chapter has rallied with others for Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year-old grandmother, who was repeatedly pummeled in the face reportedly by a California Highway Patrol officer. Both outrageous incidents were caught on videotape, and both cases demand swift action. But after watching continuous acts of police abuse and brutality from coast-to-coast, perhaps the real question is, have we reached a point where federal authorities need to step in?
The video footage that emerged of Eric Garner's encounter with police is disturbing on multiple levels and very difficult to watch. I caution anyone who is about to view it to be prepared to witness a level of disregard for human life that should disgust and outrage us all. I cannot understand how anyone can choke an unarmed man, and continue to do so despite the fact that he is saying he cannot breathe over and over and over again. Let's put aside the fact that chokeholds are illegal; where is the humanity? This man is literally telling you he cannot breathe. And to add insult to injury, EMS workers and others that arrive on the scene also fail to do anything to revive or assist Garner as this footage shows. The level of disregard is utterly frightening. And what might you ask was Eric Garner's alleged crime? Selling loose cigarettes.
On the other side of the country, NAN's LA chapter leader Rev. K.W. Tullos worked with other leaders to organize demonstrations to call for justice in the case of Marlene Pinnock. The videotape in this outrageous case shows a CHP officer punching this unarmed woman in the face and head 10 to 15 times as she lay on the ground according to numerous reports. The excuse in this incident is that Pinnock wasn't listening to the officer's commands. In Garner's case, the excuse is that he was trying to sell loose cigarettes? Are we serious? Are we even having a serious discussion at this point when such ridiculous excuses are being thrown around? There are gangsters and murders that never get placed in a chokehold. The truth is, there is absolutely no more room for excuses anymore, period. Excessive police brutality must end and those hired to protect and serve us must be re-trained as to what exactly that means.
If there is any silver lining out of these two horrific incidents, it's that others made a conscious decision to tape the interactions.
In both the Garner case and the Pinnock case, individuals of a different race sensed that something was wrong and recorded the events. Let's not fool ourselves, if it weren't for these videos, would we have even known about the tragic death of Garner, or the vicious abuse against Pinnock? These aren't isolated incidents; all across this nation police brutality is very much alive and impacting people who aren't lucky enough to have it caught on tape. If it had not been for the quick thinking and vigilance of the individuals who caught and filmed these inexcusable acts, they likely would have been swept under the rug like so many others. Technology, social media and grassroots activism has the ability to hold people accountable when they abuse power.
Our great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that we must pursue justice at all costs. And as the late sports journalist Howard Cosell would often say: all you have to do is go to the tape.