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I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi (2017; read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book is an absolute tour-de-force of research and writing and empathy. The main thread of the story is the life and death of Eric Garner. He was born, lived, and died at an early age (43) in Staten Island, New York, in the U.S. He was killed by police for standing on a sidewalk. The story is much more complicated than that and Taibbi takes time to show all of the detail of how Garner ended up working on that corner, why he hadn’t done anything wrong that day, and, perhaps most importantly, what brought the police to that location and put them in a killing mood.

The story is long and involves many features unique to the American landscape. Garner was basically doomed from day one, doomed from birth just by who his parents were and where they lived. He was doomed by his skin color and his imposing size. He was doomed by a society that inordinately feared people that looked like him—and dumped its frustrations on people like him. He was doomed by a society that could find no other way to be than to sacrifice 90% of its population to live in comparative squalor while 10% does quite well.

The police are the army that enforces the borders along these two intertwined societies, that makes sure that the extraction of wealth and energy continues, that the subjugated population stays in line. This situation affects people of all races—it happens a lot to poor Whites too—but people of color—and Blacks in particular—are singled out and massively overrepresented in all forms of statistics about crime.

In Taibbi’s words,

“[Garner] was, […] “just a man,” a single flawed person ground up by the power of the state. Eric Garner was murdered by history.

“[…] The lengths we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions—Garner’s big dream was to someday sit down at work—were awesome to contemplate. What happened to Garner spoke to the increasing desperation of white America to avoid having to even see, much less speak to or live alongside, people like him.

“[…] The motive was the secret sin of a divided society, a country frozen in time for more than fifty years, stopped one crucial step short of reconciliation and determined to stay there.”

That this is the case is a self-fulfilling prophecy: where the police look for crime, they find it. There are more than enough laws for them to always find something. The books have been filled with “reasons”; their job is to match those reasons to people in ways that aren’t too obviously ridiculous. Even ridiculous generally goes unnoticed, except by the victims, whose opinions don’t matter. If “impeding government business” by standing on a sidewalk is not only a ticketable offense, but an arrestable one, then all bets are off.

“Even in Tompkinsville Park, where 98 percent of everyone you met had less than a dollar or two, the police were everywhere.”

And the police go hunting nearly exclusively in Black and Latino neighborhoods in places like New York City. They “toss” people regularly for doing absolutely nothing—more than half a million stops per year, all to feed the Compstat numbers machine that determines who gets a promotion and who doesn’t. But the police didn’t invent the machine—they’re kind of part of it, too. The upper-class people who matter, who run everything, set things up to keep the money and power funnels pouring in their direction.

As an officer Polanco describes it,

“In one incident, he was forced to cuff a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy, with his superiors telling him they’d figure out the charge later. He even recounted being ordered to summons a guy for having no dog license when Polanco couldn’t even see a dog.”

What does “toss” mean? Often enough, it means a strip search in public, in the middle of the street, with a free genital and rectal exam conducted by apparently all-too-willing police officers.

“They had a term for it: “socially raping.” Sometimes they’d yank a guy’s pants down in the precinct, but other times they’d do it in the open air, right on the sidewalk.”

“But, wait?”, you might ask. What about the Constitution? Don’t people have rights? What about, specifically, the Fourth Amendment? Those things are not for the poor, not since the Supreme Court approved so-called Terry Stops, which reduced the requirement for a search to a constitutionally laughable level.

“The Terry decision essentially said that the legal standard for a whole generation of field searches would henceforth rest in the minds of police officers.”

At the time, people were 100% aware—in no small part due to the Kerner Commission of 1968—that racism and police brutality were the problems underlying inequality and subsequent “unrest”. But the Supreme Court punted on that too, basically saying that “[w]e can’t do anything about racism or police brutality. But we can do something about crime.” And what was crime? Oh, we knew it when we saw it. And we knew where to look for it.

With this cudgel in hand, they went to work.

“What they did have, they thought, was a tool that would help reduce crime. They weren’t sure if it would be abused or not. But they were pretty sure it would work.”

By “work”, they meant “keep poor people in check” by keeping them working, too tired to resist, not agitating, not bothering their betters. The policies prevented some crime by combatting it with other crime.

No other supposedly civilized country does this. Well, corporate crime is allowed, but directly preventing potential criminal acts by perpetrating constitutional crimes on the potential perps? I don’t think so. There is, essentially, carte blanche for the police themselves to commit the crimes they were charged with preventing, as long as they stick to prescribed victims.

To be clear they were not interested in stopping crime. The continuing lax attitude and nearly outright encouragement of white-collar crime—the more you steal, the more likely you are to get a Cabinet position—makes that very clear. Nor were they interested in even collaring the poor people responsible for the actual crimes that they’d even bothered to put on the books as the ones they claimed to be enforcing.

The crimes that affect the most lives, that are the most violent in terms of destroying lives and entire generations, are actively encouraged as part of the system that makes the right people rich. Taibbi describes the scams run by Eastern Service, a real-estate company that, in 1968, introduced practices that would be emulated several times over the next decades, culminating in the breathtaking destruction of Black wealth in 2008, when the financial crisis wiped out 70% of Black wealth.

“Federal prosecutors estimated that in 1968 alone, companies like the Eastern Service operation created $100 million in defaults and more than five thousand empty houses in New York City alone.

“[…] There was no direct bribery element in 2008, but everything else was more or less exactly the same: wholesale falsification of financial records, the aggressive effort to get people with poor credit histories into homes, falsified employment data, inflated appraisals, etc.

“[…] From forty acres and a mule to the Great Society to subprime, it was the same swindle, over and over and over again: promises that turned into brutal obligations that turned into life-ruining debt and neighborhood-destroying foreclosures for some and massive windfall profits for others.”

This is where the racism is undeniable—unless you have a vested interest in denying it. I.e. you’re already in the 10% or you think that you are or you dream one day of being in it or you’re just a deluded suck-up to authority.

“This disparity echoed an earlier bizarre statistic showing that 90 to 95 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses in New York in the nineties were black and Hispanic, despite studies showing that 72 percent of all illegal drug users in the city were white. Clearly a certain form of discretion was being exercised.”

The result of all of these penny-ante arrests was to not only get the individual police the numbers they needed to advance their careers, but also to ruin the rest of those people’s lives. Once you’ve got an arrest record, the supposed largess of society is no longer available. And guess whose fault that is? Why it’s your very own fault, isn’t it?

“And thanks to the drug war, huge numbers of young men came home from prison sentences unable to vote, live in public housing, or obtain licenses to be barbers, pet shop owners, even sanitation workers. They were kept under constant surveillance, watched even when they urinated for parole officers.”

So the objective wasn’t to catch criminals. It was to produce criminals out of the parts of the population considered to be unsavory by their betters. “The objective was order, an inherently ambiguous term but a condition that people in a given community recognized when they saw it.”

Translation? No poor or black people in sight were to sully the view of anyone important (generally, the top 10%). It’s why Eric Garner was no longer allowed to stand on his sordid, sad corner in that sordid, sad park in sordid, sad Staten Island and sell cigarettes for $0.50 apiece. Across the street, important people had paid money to build an apartment complex for other important people. And no-one wanted to see a shambolic black man every day. He had to go.

Even when New York City settled a civil lawsuit about Stop and Frisk, they just kept doing it, exploiting a gaping loophole in the settlement language to simply prohibit and then report on the now-drastically increased harassment instead of stopping it.

“That they didn’t stop mass violating the constitutional rights of 50 percent of the city’s population was, sadly enough, immaterial. The city hadn’t actually promised to change, as far as Judge Scheindlin saw it. They’d merely promised to write a new policy prohibiting the wrong behavior and turn over some numbers.”

Taibbi cites case after case to bolster his point, even finding a case from the 70s in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was DA where police officers stopped a black family for a bullshit ticket, fined them $25, then didn’t trust them to pay it if billed. So they forced the family to drive to the precinct where they had to pay in cash, immediately. The father had the gall to ask for a receipt and the ticketing officer rewarded him by shooting him point-blank in the face in the middle of the precinct. That case didn’t make it past the grand jury.

Neither did Eric Garner’s case, even though there were eight minutes of video showing police officers attacking a man out of the blue, a man who didn’t defend himself, pulling him to the ground and killing him with an illegal chokehold. Most of the eight-minute video is of Garner lying prone on the street while officers mill around, joking amongst themselves before someone thinks to call an ambulance. Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.”

Even in cases like Garner’s, where there is video, the top 10% are more than happy to accept that the video isn’t real evidence because a known criminal made it on his dirty, criminal phone. They don’t claim that it’s faked, only that it doesn’t matter because the wrong kind of person made it.

By that logic, though, if two cops filmed each other committing a crime, then their subsequent criminal culpability would automatically disqualify the video they each took, exonerating each of them. Two videos of crimes. No criminals. A paradox because the criminal act disqualifies the filmer as a witness forever. It makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to in order to be effective. People generally don’t care about holes in logic big enough to drive a truck through if you’re telling them what they want to hear.

Those are just some of the details in this book. Taibbi goes deep into the numbers machine as well as the incestuous relationship between politicians and the police. He details the Orwellian laws for police that are completely different than those for mere mortals. He describes the labyrinth of the disciplinary process for police, what a black hole it is, from which no accusation can possible escape. As he puts it, the review board “is where citizen complaints go to die.”

He discusses the common police practice of planting evidence, of lying on arrest reports, of lying on the witness stand, of brutality and humiliation, of “teaching lessons” to “those animals”. The police are at war with the poor, plain and simple. They have been given this job by the rich. Black are massively disproportionately harmed and beaten down by this system.

Though the statistics would support it, Taibbi does not even bother to explain that white people are kept down by the man, too. He does not bother to discuss that, in absolute numbers, more white people are killed by police than black people. This is all true, but there is no way to focus on any of this once you realize the disgusting, shocking level of racism in the ruling class and its private army, the police.

Taibbi makes the case what so many who’ve been involved in the fight for justice for many years have known for decades: there is a deep animus against Blacks that drives people absolutely crazy. It makes them fly off the handle in ways that they absolutely do not do when dealing with “their own kind”.

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

It’s absolutely clear that many people still just hate Blacks for being black and want nothing to do with them, other than to perhaps continue to benefit from them as a source of cheap labor. Which they do very successfully, with the massive so-called justice system set up to funnel them into jail or prison—they have to have an arrest record—after which you can deny them public housing, jobs, anything. Then you can bleed them for their cheap or free labor while in jail—or while working a bullshit job that their employer knows they can’t quit.

The stories Taibbi tells about Garner in this regard are infuriating, with the system and the police just bleeding him dry. Killing him slowly. Torturing him. The police use him for arrest numbers, for their own careers, because they sure as fuck don’t care about cigarette taxes. They often confiscated his money using “asset foreiture”—another concept unique to America where police can just take your stuff pretty much whenever it strikes their fancy (and good luck getting it back).

It’s a tremendous waste of time, money, and it’s utterly immoral, to boot. It costs the city nothing to make the charge and it ties up the poor bastard charged for years. Then it churns its way through the conveyor belt of the courts, which rarely drop cases, regardless of how outrageously unsubstantiated they are.

“It was a textbook case of what police and lawyers both call “test-a-lying.” A police officer will come into court at a probable cause hearing, for instance, and a judge will ask him why he pulled over so-and-so’s car. The officer will respond in a deadpan: “I saw drugs lying on the center console of his vehicle.” Defense lawyers laugh about the omnipresent “center console” detail in arrest warrants.

“The drugs in reality will turn out to have been found in a jacket pocket, or under the seat, after an illegal fishing expedition. But the police will tell it in court another way. Particularly in misdemeanors and drug cases, cases without profile, judges routinely buy these dubious bits of testimony and let dirty cases move through the system.

“[…] Judges rarely throw out police testimony, and even when they do, actual charges of perjury against a police officer are rare.”

But police cases are different. Those are slowed down, dragged out over years.

“From the first knock on the door, family members find themselves facing a series of intractable bureaucracies designed to make cases against police officers vanish in blizzards of political excuses and unintelligible legalese.

“[…] These bureaucracies are designed to frustrate and exhaust families bent on getting justice, grinding them down over time until finally they become dispirited and give up. The quest for answers becomes a war of attrition, and the state almost always wins.

“[…] In these cases, obscure exceptions and precedents are constantly unearthed to narrow the field of culpability to a vanishing point.

“[…] while the cases often begin as unplanned murders and assaults committed in heat-of-the-moment situations by working-class cops, they end as carefully orchestrated cover-ups committed in cold blood, through the more ethereal, polished, institutional racism of politicians, judges, and attorneys.

“[…] Both the city and Pantaleo appealed, however, and the case was tied up in court for another year and a half. By the summer of 2016, both sides were still months away from making oral arguments in the case. Years of pitched legal battle over a single number. Even the release of that much information was too much for the city to bear.”

This is how they waste taxpayer money defending criminals and flouting justice, funneling all the attacker’s energy into an ever-more narrowly defined and ultimately useless endeavor. You want justice for a murder, but you end up losing in court two years later trying to get a single number that probably signifies nothing legally relevant. You end up dying on an insignificant hill that your enemy chose.

It would be a tragedy, but we know at least some good comes of it: it’s done in the name of generating careers and economic activity for the already privileged to the detriment of people who aren’t really people. Let’s face it: they brought it on themselves by not having been born privileged. There is no way out of this—the system has been well-designed to trap more than enough of the wrong kind of people within it. And it’s well-designed to make those trapped feel like it’s their own fault, to constantly remind them that they are being helped, even when the help is there to maintain their poor position, not to lift them out.

“The Great Society programs that came out of that War on Poverty set into motion a series of unintended consequences. The assistance programs always had a strong bureaucratic and even punitive element. The government created armies of inspectors and social workers who, in the process of administering public assistance, got involved in regulating every aspect of life in poor black neighborhoods.”

This is paternalism. Because you can’t just give someone 500 bucks a month. You have to remind them that they needed it. And, of course, let them know that they’re in charge of remedying the deficiency that led them to needing it, which was always inherent to them and not immanent to the system.

“Black America always saw the continuing schism. But white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history […] in the end mostly what people in power wanted to do was nothing at all, unless there was an immediate benefit in it for them.”

Citations

“For Pedro, the new regime just put an official government stamp on neighborhood rules that he’d understood since his earliest childhood days. The streets may seem free and public, but they don’t belong to you. You walk down them at someone else’s pleasure, with someone else’s permission.”
Page 28
“"If a guy screwed up, they made it right,“ Serrano says. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I found this gun in a trunk.’ And they’d say, ‘You’re not supposed to search the trunk. But don’t worry about it, kid. You found it in the backseat. And you saw the tip of the gun on the passenger side. It was right near you, remember? Okay, write it down. Now you’re okay, guy.‘ “”
Page 29
“[…] up in the northwest Bronx, a tough neighborhood that included “hot spots” like Bedford Park—were not just stopping people at random but strip-searching them. They had a term for it: “socially raping.” Sometimes they’d yank a guy’s pants down in the precinct, but other times they’d do it in the open air, right on the sidewalk.”
Page 29
“Just like Serrano, Polanco had been put in the position of writing up innocent people. In one incident, he was forced to cuff a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy, with his superiors telling him they’d figure out the charge later. He even recounted being ordered to summons a guy for having no dog license when Polanco couldn’t even see a dog.”
Page 33
“In jail, he spent a lot of time reading. He read that states in the Cuomo years earned matching funds and other incentives from the federal government if they committed enough resources to catching crack dealers. That explained why cops spent so much of their time and resources watching black people trade a few dollars of this for that. “Otherwise, nobody gives a fuck what goes on in our neighborhoods,” he says.”
Page 38
“Even in Tompkinsville Park, where 98 percent of everyone you met had less than a dollar or two, the police were everywhere”
Page 38
“While the federal government in the infamous Tuskegee Study in rural Alabama was leaving black men with syphilis untreated, researchers at Holmesburg were paying inmates to allow them to perform tests and biopsies on patches of their skin. The studies were for developing skin creams, deodorants, moisturizers, suntan products, and other substances. This was the 1970s.”
Page 42
“By early 2011, the Poospatuck Reservation, located just south of the Montauk Highway in the middle of Long Island, was taking delivery of about 6.6 million cartons per year, which worked out to be about two-thirds as much as the 10 million legally sold cartons in New York State. The Poospatucks only had a tax exemption to sell to other tribe members, of which there were about three hundred. That meant millions of people a year were thumbing their nose at Bloomberg’s revenue plan.”
Page 48
“New York’s then governor Mario Cuomo spent the eighties and early nineties funding more than thirty new prisons using a loophole in an urban development law that, perversely, had been intended to create jobs in inner cities.”
Page 49
“The Supreme Court of Earl Warren had become known for expanding civil liberties and curtailing police power, for instance by ending the “third degree”—a euphemism for torture as an interrogation tactic—and forbidding the use of illegally seized evidence, in the 1961 case Mapp v. Ohio. But now, as some Americans were beginning to panic over a perception of massive urban unrest, the court reversed course and gave the police a new weapon. They ruled McFadden’s arrest had been a good one and thereby created a new legal framework for police interactions with people on the street. The Terry decision essentially said that the legal standard for a whole generation of field searches would henceforth rest in the minds of police officers.
Page 55

“Translated loosely, what Warren was saying was that even if all of those complaining black people are right about police abuse, my Supreme Court lacks the power to do anything about it. It’s going to happen no matter what. However, he wrote, while helpless to stop police abuse, we do have the power to make fighting crime easier. Therefore, Warren suggested, we will worry about one and not the other.

We can’t do anything about racism or police brutality. But we can do something about crime.

Page 55
“"For centuries, the role of the police as watchmen was judged primarily not in terms of its compliance with appropriate procedures but rather in terms of its attaining a desired objective,“ they wrote. “The objective was order, an inherently ambiguous term but a condition that people in a given community recognized when they saw it.””
Page 58

Which translated to: no poor or black people in sight.

““We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question,” they wrote. “We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority.””
Page 60

Oh sweet God, the naiveté. Power corrupts . Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“What they did have, they thought, was a tool that would help reduce crime. They weren’t sure if it would be abused or not. But they were pretty sure it would work.”
Page 60

By “work”, they meant “keep poor people in check”, to keep them working, not resisting, not agitating, not bothering their betters. It prevented some crime by combatting it with other crime. No other supposedly civilized country does this. Well, corporate crime is allowed, but directly preventing potential criminal acts by perpetrating constitutional crimes on the potential perps? I don’t think so. Essentially carte blanche for the police themselves to commit the crimes they were charged with preventing, as long as they stuck to prescribed victims.

“"People frightened of crime,“ he said, “are already victims.””
Page 61

Christ thats horseshit…not if the fear is unreasonable. Someone afraid of black people should not be called a victim.

“There was no other way to explain it: New York’s reputation as a “scary” city was inextricably linked to the perception that it was a black city, or at least a place where white people couldn’t safely avoid having to deal with black people.”
Page 63
“Moreover, “zero tolerance” implied police were arresting everyone everywhere by the book, without making their own judgment calls, which was certainly not the case. Cops were not throwing zero tolerance at stockbrokers in high-rent neighborhoods. It was discretion here, no discretion there.”
Page 68
“This disparity echoed an earlier bizarre statistic showing that 90 to 95 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses in New York in the nineties were black and Hispanic, despite studies showing that 72 percent of all illegal drug users in the city were white. Clearly a certain form of discretion was being exercised.”
Page 68

Again, not fighting crime, but inventing criminals.

“The legal word for this is “forfeiture,” but Garner just called it “taking my shit.” Police take anything they turn up in a search that they think is contraband, i.e., the proceeds of an illegal activity, like for instance gambling or drug dealing or selling untaxed cigarettes. Police might stop your car or stop you on the street, and it didn’t matter what you said, they’d find a way to go through your stuff. You waited while they went through your pockets. If they found a wad of cash or a carton of smokes, they might just take it and dare you to come to the station and prove where it came from. Even when they’re wrong, the tactic never really backs up on the police.”
Page 76
“Whole days spent standing in the snow on his swollen feet handing fifty-cent cigarettes to drunks would disappear in an instant, thanks to chance meetings with snickering cops who always had a little extra word for him, too.”
Page 77

And they kept the money either for themselves or the department.

“That they didn’t stop mass violating the constitutional rights of 50 percent of the city’s population was, sadly enough, immaterial. The city hadn’t actually promised to change, as far as Judge Scheindlin saw it. They’d merely promised to write a new policy prohibiting the wrong behavior and turn over some numbers.”
Page 84
“In other words, in a court, before a judge, the city essentially now argued that they had falsified millions of Stop-and-Frisk forms. All of those reasons justifying the searches that the city’s cops had cited on official forms countless times—“furtive movements,” “bulges,” “inappropriate attire,” etc.—were just convenient euphemisms. In truth, there was a single, blanket justification that covered “reasonable suspicion” for at least 80 percent of those searches: they were black or Hispanic residents of high-crime neighborhoods.”
Page 85
“The neighborhoods at which Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg pointed were not just a statistical location for criminal acts. They were crimes themselves. Most of the crime-ridden minority neighborhoods in New York City, especially areas like East New York, where many of the characters in Eric Garner’s story grew up, had been artificially created by a series of criminal real estate scams.”
Page 86
“The scale of these scams was, for the times, massive. Federal prosecutors estimated that in 1968 alone, companies like the Eastern Service operation created $100 million in defaults and more than five thousand empty houses in New York City alone.”
Page 87
“There was no direct bribery element in 2008, but everything else was more or less exactly the same: wholesale falsification of financial records, the aggressive effort to get people with poor credit histories into homes, falsified employment data, inflated appraisals, etc.”
Page 88
“From forty acres and a mule to the Great Society to subprime, it was the same swindle, over and over and over again: promises that turned into brutal obligations that turned into life-ruining debt and neighborhood-destroying foreclosures for some and massive windfall profits for others.”
Page 88
“Things like this are part of what drive the resentment toward police in nonwhite neighborhoods. For the most part, people living in low-income housing and in project towers don’t see the more egregious double standard in the justice system enjoyed by, say, Wall Street CEOs committing massive real estate scams that decimated neighborhoods. But you do notice that your landlord is getting away with decades of violations without consequence.”
Page 88
“Rules were all he wanted. Everyone knew that the government didn’t care about the law; if it did, Jewel’s landlord wouldn’t be free to run his business in open violation of dozens of building codes. If the law mattered, cops wouldn’t be stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of people every year in violation of the law. Eric knew that the city didn’t run according to the law but according to the unwritten rules. But those rules needed to be followed or there was no way for a person to live.”
Page 90
“On the afternoon of March 28, 2014, he was walking out of the check-cashing storefront on the corner of Bay and Victory when police stopped him. They asked him where he was going and asked for ID. Garner protested that he didn’t have any ID on him. They asked where his ID was. “It’s in my car,” he said. “Let’s go to your car,” they told him. He went with the police to his car, which was parked around the corner. While he looked for his wallet, police took the opportunity to search inside the car. They found a carton of untaxed cigarettes and arrested him on the spot.”
Page 95

Infuriating. Just bleeding him dry. Killing him slowly. Torturing him. Using him for arrest numbers, for their own careers, because they sure as fuck don’t care about cigarette taxes.

“Thomas reportedly tested negative when they checked his system for drugs. He couldn’t have swallowed anything. And if he never had an open container, then basically it was just one more stop gone wrong, a beating in broad daylight over nothing. But the police didn’t fold their hand. They followed the usual playbook and charged Thomas with obstructing government administration and resisting arrest. “The police are like a gang,” Thomas said at the time.”
Page 105

A tremendous waste of time, money, and its utterly immoral to boot. It costs them nothing to make the charge and it ties up the poor bastard for years.

“It was a textbook case of what police and lawyers both call “test-a-lying.” A police officer will come into court at a probable cause hearing, for instance, and a judge will ask him why he pulled over so-and-so’s car. The officer will respond in a deadpan: “I saw drugs lying on the center console of his vehicle.” Defense lawyers laugh about the omnipresent “center console” detail in arrest warrants. The drugs in reality will turn out to have been found in a jacket pocket, or under the seat, after an illegal fishing expedition. But the police will tell it in court another way. Particularly in misdemeanors and drug cases, cases without profile, judges routinely buy these dubious bits of testimony and let dirty cases move through the system.”
Page 105
“Judges rarely throw out police testimony, and even when they do, actual charges of perjury against a police officer are rare. That doesn’t mean that all or even most police are dirty. It just means that in places like Staten Island there’s little downside for police to cutting corners on arrest warrants and searches. If instead of waiting to see an actual crime committed, you want to just grab a guy off the street and shake him to see what comes out of his pockets, there’s a very good chance that it won’t stop your case from moving forward.”
Page 106

Costs them nothing. No downside. Especially when you’re doing it to subhumans.

“He remembered being in Brownsville in the early nineties, watching police checking people outside an old folks’ home for open container violations. The sight of young white police smugly manhandling and questioning gray-haired black folks about their beverages left James openmouthed. “You’re talking to an eighty-five-year-old lady for carrying a can of something, not even beer. This is an older person, who’s lived through things, someone you should have respect for,” he says. “Would you ever see that go on at an elderly home in a white neighborhood?””
Page 116
“To the black people who were its most frequent targets, the real-life, nontheoretical version of the program instantly evoked overtly racist policing programs from the past. For them, Broken Windows and Stop-and-Frisk never had a chance of being taken seriously as anything but the latest excuse to harass minorities.”
Page 116
“No matter what the time period, police from the Civil War through the later Jim Crow period always had series of highly flexible laws ready if they felt the need to arrest any black person uncooperative enough not to have committed an actual crime.”
Page 117
“The Black Codes were transparently designed as a ready-made legal excuse to act in any situation when black people started to get too comfortable exercising their basic rights in the presence of white people.”
Page 117
“The Great Society programs that came out of that War on Poverty set into motion a series of unintended consequences. The assistance programs always had a strong bureaucratic and even punitive element. The government created armies of inspectors and social workers who, in the process of administering public assistance, got involved in regulating every aspect of life in poor black neighborhoods.”
Page 117

Paternalism. Because you can’t just give someone 500 bucks a month. You have to remind them that they needed it. And, of course, let them know that they’re in charge of remedying the deficiency that led them to needing it, which was always inherent to them and not immanent to the system.

“This regulation became even more intrusive when the Supreme Court in the seventies gave the state a permanent right to enter any home of anyone on public assistance. Even sexual freedom wasn’t absolute. Housing inspectors asked single mothers who their boyfriends were, and how many nights a week they slept over, to ensure that the women were eligible for the aid they received. No other form of government aid—from corporate welfare to agricultural subsidies to the mortgage interest deduction—required this level of intimate intrusion.”
Page 117
“And thanks to the drug war, huge numbers of young men came home from prison sentences unable to vote, live in public housing, or obtain licenses to be barbers, pet shop owners, even sanitation workers. They were kept under constant surveillance, watched even when they urinated for parole officers.”
Page 118
“Absent the cellphone videos, in other words, nobody would likely have heard how Eric Garner really died. This would have been written up as an unhealthy man with asthma and diabetes who had a heart attack after a routine arrest on a minor charge.”
Page 127
“From the first knock on the door, family members find themselves facing a series of intractable bureaucracies designed to make cases against police officers vanish in blizzards of political excuses and unintelligible legalese.”
Page 136
“These bureaucracies are designed to frustrate and exhaust families bent on getting justice, grinding them down over time until finally they become dispirited and give up. The quest for answers becomes a war of attrition, and the state almost always wins. The families eventually give in and soon everything is forgotten, allowing the process to repeat itself.”
Page 136
“In these cases, obscure exceptions and precedents are constantly unearthed to narrow the field of culpability to a vanishing point. Often, in the end, the law says that not only is no one responsible for the death of someone killed by a police officer, no one can be responsible.”
Page 140
“Another recurring theme in these stories is that while the cases often begin as unplanned murders and assaults committed in heat-of-the-moment situations by working-class cops, they end as carefully orchestrated cover-ups committed in cold blood, through the more ethereal, polished, institutional racism of politicians, judges, and attorneys.”
Page 140
“There was a flip side to the argument. What if the practical truth is that real justice in white America is a loser’s pursuit—and maybe money is the only consolation on offer for these families who’d lost their loved ones? If systemic change and true justice are nonstarters, is it wrong to focus on getting the families as much money as possible? Some civil rights lawyers reluctantly admit that these thoughts enter their minds.”
Page 149
“The relatively simple ask from black Americans was that white Americans take a moment to recognize what it feels like, say, to be told your son has been killed, but not told why or how, as happened with Trayvon Martin, or to watch a pregnant woman put in a chokehold over a backyard barbecue, as happened to twenty-seven-year-old Rosan Miller in New York nine days after Garner’s death. They asked white people to consider what it felt like to have your son’s bleeding corpse left in the street for four long hours. But the request implicit in the name “Black Lives Matter” quickly flipped around into an absurd overreaction.”
Page 153
“From Powell to Sayon to Garner, from Hogan to Murphy to Donovan, very little in these stories ever changed, except for the names.”
Page 171
“Sharpton would later try to fight back, reportedly telling young members at an NAN gathering that new activist groups trying to drive a wedge between protesters and the old guard were “pimping” young people. “It’s the disconnect that is the strategy to break the movement,” Sharpton said, according to Capital New York reporter Azi Paybarah, who obtained a recording of the meeting. On tape, the reverend goes on: “They play on your ego. ‘Oh, you young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face.‘ All the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.””
Page 175
“Aspects of the old protest model have been romanticized over time, leading to the sometimes-embarrassing phenomenon of well-off college graduates bragging about getting arrested and confronting “the man,” usually a line cop who will work his whole life and still owe money on a starter house in some dreary suburb somewhere.”
Page 178
“On one side sat a group of mostly nonwhite Americans who believed (or knew from personal experience) that institutional racism is still a deathly serious problem in this country, as evidenced by everything from profiling to mass incarceration to sentencing disparities to a massive wealth gap. On the other side sat an increasingly impatient population of white conservatives that was being squeezed economically (although not nearly as much as black citizens), felt its cultural primacy eroding, and had become hypersensitive to any accusation of racism.”
Page 189
“Trooper Green ostensibly stopped Carnell for speeding, although the real offense may have just been driving too nice a car. He didn’t trust the man to pay his fine later, so he demanded that Carnell drive into Star City and pay a “bond” on the spot.”
Page 202

None of this is legal.

“Inside the courthouse, Russ paid the money, then made what proved to be a fatal mistake. He asked for a receipt.”
Page 202

He assumed he was a citizen.

“"Your husband said a smart word,“ is how Green explained Carnell’s death.”
Page 203
“Once again, an all-white jury was seated. The jury took three hours this time instead of eight minutes. They found Ratliff and Green innocent.”
Page 204

This makes me nearly physically ill.

“After this change, the federal government for the first time openly claimed purview over local criminal cases. It asserted its right to step in and reprosecute if state or city governments were too backward or corrupt to do it themselves. Star City, Arkansas, became the birthplace of the modern federal civil rights investigation.”
Page 205
“So here he was again in another shabby provincial courtroom where the fix was probably in, awaiting the inevitable disingenuous ending that is a consistent feature of these cases: the moment when a judge or a prosecutor sighs and tells the family that the law says there’s nothing they can do.”
Page 208
“Meyerson wasn’t accusing him of being biased, just saying that lots of people in Staten Island might think he was simply because he was part of what was perceived to be a racist county’s racist system of justice. Meyerson’s argument was that for the African American community to be satisfied in this particular case, they needed a different judge, which made perfect sense and really had nothing to do with Garnett personally.”
Page 218

Essentially drawing a line from 1970s Arkansas and 2014 Staten Island.

“Meyerson wouldn’t let go. He pushed Garnett some more and reiterated that the case was not about fine legal abstractions but about brutal, obvious reality. He argued that if the case had been about a white man choked to death by a black man over a cigarette while the black man’s friends watched and did nothing, the killer would have been indicted long ago.

““That African American and probably his friends would have been arrested,” Meyerson thundered. “And in the proverbial New York minute, the prosecutor would have convened the grand jury, and in half a day, with the videotape, with the medical examiner’s report, and with some report saying chokeholds cause people to die, and the audio saying, ‘I can’t breathe,‘ would have gotten indictments for some form of homicide.””

Page 218
“And a federal judge ruled that the NAACP had standing to sue in that nearly exact case because the state had indeed failed, and the NAACP, an organization founded for the exact purpose of defending African Americans against being lynched, or shot between the eyes over a speeding ticket, or strangled over a cigarette, had a clear interest in securing the civil rights of its clients.”
Page 219
“Those last three words, “of no moment,” hung poisonously in the air. It was the age-old argument: we don’t need outsiders coming in to tell us our business. The argument was as old as America, a country where southern white resentment over anyone telling them how to deal with “their” blacks was written into the Constitution.”
Page 221
“Daniel Pantaleo had done such duty in Staten Island. Project residents in New York for the most part deeply resented these searches. The idea of having to bring ID with you to empty trash pissed people off. Even worse was the notion of having to deal with police patrols in what most people considered their own hallways.”
Page 222

Flabbergasted. Presumably this is allowed because it’s public housing and they’d long since passed a law that poor people have no rights when housed on public land. Second-class because you’re poor.

“Ultimately the cops got angry and arrested Fields for the catchall offenses of “obstructing pedestrian traffic” and “obstructing government administration.” They claimed, among other things, that the skinny young man had prevented people from entering the elevator.”
Page 222

Arrested for contempt of cop or having a smart mouth.

“This to him was only a dangerous place, not a place where people raised kids, fell in love, watched Giants games, told bad jokes, and ate Christmas dinners. People who lived there had no identity for him apart from the fact that they were potential threats.

“A cop ascending a staircase in a white neighborhood who was so pre-terrified of the residents that he pulled the trigger at the first sound he heard would be derided as a paranoid lunatic.

“Similarly, the idea that a fat white guy selling hot smokes on a street corner was a grave threat would be laughed at as absurd. But a 350-pound black man is plausibly described in the press as someone who scared pedestrians, a threat needing to be defused.”

Page 224
“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”
Page 225
“In nearly half a century of litigating police abuse cases, Meyerson had become fixated on the idea that the law was becoming a thing too much of itself, self-deceiving and disentangled from morality.”
Page 227
“It was a humdrum case of test-a-lying and fishing with dynamite: stop a whole car, fudge the probable cause, violate a right or two or three, charge everyone, let the courts sort it out.”
Page 230
“The NYPD ultimately had to pay out $30,000, or $15,000 for each man strip-searched.”
Page 231
“what was it with cops and cavity searches?”
Page 238

Seriously. This is the strongest indication of sociopathy. Who does this willingly? with such seeming gusto? Monsters. An intelligent person doesn’t jump into this sort of thing without inhibition. They’re like stormtroopers.

“Even before de Blasio took office, police were already claiming that Stop-and-Frisk was a thing of the past. Among other things, they insisted that stops had declined 94 percent by the last three months of Michael Bloomberg’s administration.”
Page 239

How does it drop that much if they weren’t useless and just harassment in the first place?

“Both the city and Pantaleo appealed, however, and the case was tied up in court for another year and a half. By the summer of 2016, both sides were still months away from making oral arguments in the case. Years of pitched legal battle over a single number. Even the release of that much information was too much for the city to bear.”
Page 242

This is how they waste taxpayer money defending criminals and flouting justice, funneling all the attacker’s energy into an ever-more narrowly defined and ultimately useless endeavor. You want justice for a murder, but you end up losing in court two years later trying to get a single number that probably signifies nothing legally relevant. You end up dying on an insignificant hill that your enemy chose.

“The FOIA request leading to the release of the video was clearly a major reason that Van Dyke was charged with murder at all. Law enforcement had lied repeatedly in that case, claiming an assault that never happened. It was only when it couldn’t be denied anymore that charges were filed.”
Page 247
“"Back then they had masks,“ he said. “Now they have uniforms. Then they hid behind the masks. Now they hide behind the uniforms. We know their faces, but we don’t know nothing else.””
Page 249
“The police, however, made it absolutely clear that they saw a connection between Orta’s criminality and the fact that he’d taken the film, and they were determined to have the rest of the world make that same connection.”
Page 255

Thought experiment: if two cops film each other committing a crime, then each of their crikminal culpability would automatically disqualify the video they took, exonerating each of them. Two videos of crimes. No criminals. A paradox because the criminal act disqualifies the filmer as a witness forever.

“Orta around that time began to draw parallels between the way he had been treated and the way Daniel Pantaleo was being treated. The two men had somehow switched fates. Pantaleo had actually killed Eric Garner, but it seemed like Orta was somehow stepping into what should have been Pantaleo’s role of the man being hunted for the crime.”
Page 257
“[…] a prison construction project that was being pushed by erstwhile liberal-hero governor Mario Cuomo after he’d undertaken the largest prison construction campaign seen in the industrial world since Stalin.”
Page 259
“At any given time, on any list of the most miserable places in New York City, the downtown arraignments court at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan would have to rank pretty high. This grim little hall smells like mold and features beat-up wooden pews for benches, and most of the action inside involves sending people nobody cares about to places the public will never see, down the toilet of the city’s medieval jail system.”
Page 261
“Dear shot five cops and killed one, but the police conspicuously forgot to beat him after capture, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in Eric Garner’s old neighborhood. “Look at him. Not a mark on his face,” Annan says, shaking his head.”
Page 268

Cops flip out at black insouciance. Uppity Negros make cops mad. White cop-killers don’t push their buttons nearly as much.

“In Annan’s case, if Officers Raso and D’Albero had managed to avoid crippling their suspect, they’d probably have gotten a conviction. Even if what actually happened is that two cops barged into a parked car and committed a groping blind search on private property without any reason at all beyond Annan being black and in the wrong place, it likely would’ve worked.”
Page 269
“Even if someone like Annan is completely innocent and there’s no evidence to convict him, he’s now got to put his fate in the hands of a system that has already proven itself at least somewhat corrupt by letting the case go toward trial in the first place.”
Page 271
“The case would be a bizarre tale of a man suddenly and without context assaulting two officers on the streets of Staten Island shortly before having his leg broken in three places. The judge stared, clearly hoping that the young ADA would drop the charges and remove this ridiculous, time-consuming, and incidentally quite plainly corrupt case from His Honor’s docket.”
Page 272

“The Donovan campaign brought the Garner story near its bizarre circular end. What began as a tragedy that momentarily forced even most white Americans to think about the dangers of overaggressive policing had flipped and become a cause for a significant percentage of white conservatives, who now cast themselves as victims in the story.

“They saw themselves as a besieged minority, surrounded by a coalition of ivory-tower liberals, work-averse ethnic groups, and immigrants looking for handouts. They were tired of being called racists and were beginning to wonder why it was that only blacks and Latinos and Muslims and whoever else were allowed to have identity politics. What about us? Who looks out for our interests? Who fights for us? They were determined to elevate and protect the men—and it was mostly men—who put themselves on the line to maintain the system they’d come to know and their place at the top of it. They honored the ones who’d fight—and kill, if necessary—for that order.”

Page 278
“Erica thought that the way people all over the country sent money to people like George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, the policeman in Ferguson, was designed to send people like her a message.”
Page 279
“[…] in the end mostly what people in power wanted to do was nothing at all, unless there was an immediate benefit in it for them.”
Page 280

“The report basically said that the cities were blowing up because black America was tired of living in a racist country where there were no jobs.

“Detailing extensive patterns of segregation, discrimination in the job and housing markets, and police brutality, the commission argued that the root of America’s problems had to do with the failure to integrate white and black communities.

“White people, the commission basically concluded, didn’t want to live with black people. They preferred a segregated society and used complex discriminatory practices to enforce the distance.”

Page 284
“The Kerner predictions came true. By the mid-2010s, even after the election of a black man to the Oval Office, the country was almost completely segregated. Statistics bore this dirty little secret out.”
Page 285
“On close inspection, these great cities, not coincidentally all sites of horrific police brutality controversies in recent times, are actually just collections of tense racial archipelagoes where people of different races don’t live near one another or socialize.”
Page 285

“The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation.

“Black America always saw the continuing schism. But white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history.”

Page 285

“This forgetting process is what police are for.

“Aggressive policing maintains the reality of segregation in part by policing the borders separating poor black neighborhoods from affluent white ones. But more important, it maintains the illusion of integration by allowing police officers to take the fall for policies driven by the white taxpayers on the other side of the blue wall.”

Page 286
“The ideas we supposedly learned in the sixties, that people are people and what differences we have must be cultural and political, not racial, never quite stuck. Not really. And the incompleteness of that civil rights movement finally surfaced in the form of a national counterrevolt that seized every form of power in this country.”
Page 288

“For James Knight, the death of his friend and the rise of Trump are linked. Just days after Trump’s Alabama rally, he reflects on what it all means. Instead of providing a wake-up call, Garner’s death might have just ended up driving hidden beliefs to the surface.

““You can see now how America really is.” He sighs. “Most of the time, it was hidden, people didn’t say things like they’re saying now.” James sits on a stoop not far from where Garner had been killed, looks around, and shakes his head. “But now you can see with Trump, the support he has behind him, how it’s growing, you see what America is really feeling behind closed doors,” he says. “They’re letting us know what they think of us.””

Page 289
“Erica rarely spoke of her father as a hero or a martyr. He was, she realized, “just a man,” a single flawed person ground up by the power of the state. Eric Garner was murdered by history. The motive was the secret sin of a divided society, a country frozen in time for more than fifty years, stopped one crucial step short of reconciliation and determined to stay there. Now the long line of armor and weaponry arrayed against a single grieving woman appeared as symbols of our desire to separate.”
Page 292
“As was revealed in the Stop-and-Frisk lawsuit, the problem was that the policy pre-concluded that some people are more prone to crime than others. Simply looking a certain way became probable cause. That some of the people who ended up being searched and/or roughed up turned out to be criminals, and some didn’t, seemed totally random and irrelevant to me. The real issue was that we employed the strategy in some places and not in others.”
Page 300
“The lengths we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions—Garner’s big dream was to someday sit down at work—were awesome to contemplate. What happened to Garner spoke to the increasing desperation of white America to avoid having to even see, much less speak to or live alongside, people like him.”
Page 303
“The police are blamed for these deaths, and often rightly so, but the highly confrontational, physically threatening strategies cops such as Daniel Pantaleo employ draw their power from the tacit approval of upscale white voters. Whether they admit it or not, many voters would rather that Eric Garner be dead and removed from view somewhere than living and eating Cheetos on the stoop next door.”
Page 303
“This tiny act of defiance triggered not just a preposterous display of force but the mother of all disproportionate bureaucratic responses. The latter encompassed an apparent thrown case by the district attorney’s office, months of grand jury sessions, multiple judges in multiple courts holding the line against inquiries, years of obstinate refusal by city officials to turn over records, a sweeping effort by police to target individuals on the block deemed responsible for the controversy, and countless other actions.”
Page 304
“But Eric Garner isn’t a symbol. He was a flesh-and-blood person—interesting, imperfect, funny, ambitious, and alive—who just happened to stumble into the thresher of America’s reactionary racist insanity at exactly the wrong time. But his story—about how ethnic resentments can be manipulated politically to leave us vulnerable to the lawless violence of our own government—is not his alone. His bad luck has now become ours.”
Page 305