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Eric Garner: The Unseen Heart of the Violence

There is overt violence, and there is structural violence. The video of Eric Garner's death shows us an act of overt violence. The larger events which led to his death were acts of structural violence.
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[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] The Staten Island Ferry passes the Statue of Liberty in New York.
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] The Staten Island Ferry passes the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Death, like life, occurs within an interconnected web of forces. Eric Garner died at a specific place and time, but he was drawn there by those larger unseen forces. So was the officer who took his life.

One of them never left.

The neighborhood where Eric Garner died was near the terminal point for the Staten Island Ferry, which leaves lower Manhattan from a newly-built building on Whitehall Street.

The Whitehall building is a few minutes' walk from Wall Street, and it shows. Commuters leaving at the end of a downtown workday enter a gleaming and futuristic edifice of steel and glass, a 21 landmark which evokes the preceding century's enduring faith in the future.

They called it "the American Century" back then, and the metropolis of New York was its capital. Its great works of architecture were temples to prosperity, shrines to an era of growth they thought would never end.

A 2005 Newsday article gushed that the Whitehall ferry building's landscaping seemed to "embrace harried commuters in rough, thoroughly secular imitation of St. Peter's Square welcoming pilgrims." It employs a "state-of-the-art heating and air conditioning system, partially powered by solar panels." It boasts a number of retail shops, as well as New York City's only indoor farmer's market.

The terminal station on Staten Island is considerably more modest. A small building stands alone against the dock, wedged between a large parking lot and inland waters which are often covered with small whitecaps. The address is 1 Bay Street. The spot where Eric Garner died is just a few minutes' walk from the ferry terminus, at 202 Bay Street.

Pilgrims would feel less welcome there.

The image on Google Maps shows the storefront of Bay Beauty Supply, where multiracial models strike poses in the window. Next door is "Wig Zone" (or is that "Wig Zone Fever"?). A small neon sign tell us there's an ATM inside. Stenciling on the window reads "On Sale, Regular Wig, $9.99."

Two neighborhoods, separated by a twenty-five minute ferry ride.

We were told that Mr. Garner was selling "loosies," or individual cigarettes, on the street the day he died. We weren't told why he was selling them - or why he was able to find a steady supply of customers there, paying a steep markup for a single smoke because they couldn't afford to buy an entire pack at a time.

That's part of the poverty trap: Those who can't afford regular prices wind up paying even more.

According to news reports, Garner had been employed by the City of New York as a horticulturist. We don't know how he came to be unemployed, but we do know that New York City's payroll has been cut by more than 16,000 employees since the financial crisis of 2008.

That financial crisis was caused by banker fraud. Fraud. Criminal behavior. Committed on Wall Street. At the other end of the ferry line.

None of the bankers who orchestrated that fraud have been arrested. But Eric Garner was. He was being arrested again when he died.

It's absurd to think that Eric Garner made a conscious decision to abandon a good job with the city in order to live the precarious and penurious existence of a cigarette seller on the street.

We know that unemployment is higher among African-American males than it is for the overall population. The unemployment rate for African-American males in New York City is 14 percent.

That's the official rate, anyway. The actual rate is undoubtedly much higher. Several years after the financial crisis struck, the Fiscal Policy Institute identified a number of New York City neighborhoods with especially high unemployment rates for black men. One of those neighborhoods was the North Shore of Staten Island, where Eric Garner died.

Conservatives like Rep. Steve King rushed in to argue that health problems, not police officers, killed Mr. Garner. ""If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese," said King, "he would not have died from this."

But, like the landscape and the circumstances in which he died, Eric Garner's health was shaped by larger economic forces. His health problems are endemic in low-income communities, the product of environmental conditions, stress, external pressures, and the unavailability or unaffordability of healthier foods.

It's not easy to go gluten-free in some parts of town.

The American Heart Association notes that 44.4 percent of African-American men (and 48.7 percent of African-American women) suffer from cardiovascular disease. The overall death rate for cardiovascular disease was 236.1 per thousand in 2009, while the death rate for African-American males was 387.0 per thousand.

And about that asthma: The National Medical Association observes that "The racial differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality among minorities are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, lack of patient and physician education, inadequate medical care, misuse of medications and lack of available resources in communities where they live."

These are systemic problems, just as surely as police violence toward African-American males is a systemic problem.

Speaking of which: It should be self-evident to any reasonable person that we wouldn't be talking about Eric Garner's health today if excessive force had not been used against him last July, and if that force had not resulted in the loss of his life - despite the fact that he kept telling the police officers at the scene that he couldn't breathe.

But the officers on the scene when Eric Garner died were acting for systemic reasons, too. In part, their behavior was the residue of a discredited "broken windows" policing philosophy, which argued that major crimes could be reduced with a zero-tolerance attitude toward minor offenses.

There are no broken windows on Wall Street.

The officer who manhandled Garner had a record of abusive behavior. There is no excuse for his actions. But he, too, was in the grip of larger forces. It's worth remembering that police officers are middle-class and working-class individuals. They are actors in a larger drama, as Eric Garner was.

As are we all.

There is overt violence, and there is structural violence. The video of Eric Garner's death shows us an act of overt violence. The larger events which led to his death were acts of structural violence.

Our moral leaders have told us time and time again that violence against any one of us wounds us all. Until we recognize and address both forms of violence - the seen and the unseen, the overt and the structural - our society cannot be made whole. Until the hidden heart of violence is made visible, none of us will be able to breathe.

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