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How Eric Garner changed the national conversation on race and police

A demonstrator protests grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Boston on Dec. 4. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A year ago Friday, Eric Garner died. The 6’4”, 400-pound man with diabetes and who suffered from asthma and sleep apnea, was killed on a Staten Island street when a New York City police officer brought him to the ground with a chokehold. A tactic prohibited by the department’s patrol guide. The alleged offense: selling untaxed cigarettes.

As The Post has been documenting in a disturbing series, people are killed by police all the time. “[A]t least two people have been shot and killed by police every single day so far this month,” Wesley Lowery reported last week in a story marking the 500th person shot and killed by police so far in 2015. No, Garner was not killed by a bullet from a police officer’s gun. But what made Garner’s death especially notable and significant is that we watched him die. What made it significant was how it changed the national conversation on race and law enforcement.

We watched the father of six insist to police that he had not illegally sold cigarettes. We watched him tell the police, “Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.” We watched him say, “Please don’t touch me” as he is taken down in a chokehold with his hands up. We watched intently as he said 11 times “I can’t breathe.” And we watched him lie still on the sidewalk without receiving immediate medical attention.

[Justice for Eric Garner]

Garner’s July 17, 2014, death shook the national consciousness because everyone saw an abuse of police power with their own eyes. But in one video after another over the past year, the nation had no choice but to see what African Americans had been complaining about for decades. When you’re black, you are one misunderstanding or itchy trigger finger away from being shot and killed. And the videos from closed circuit television, cell phones, dashboard or body cameras came at a wearying pace.

John Crawford was killed at a Wal-Mart in Ohio on Aug. 5, three weeks after Garner. Levar Jones was shot by a South Carolina state trooper on Sept. 4 and survived. Tamir Rice was shot and killed in a Cleveland park on Nov. 22. Eric Harris was killed by a volunteer reserve deputy in Tulsa, Okla., on April 2, 2015.  Walter Scott was killed by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer who shot him as he ran away on April 4. Freddie Gray’s questionable arrest by Baltimore police was caught on video. After a week in a coma, he died on April 19. The lawyer for the Gray family said the 25-year-old’s spine was nearly severed at the neck.

[“‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie”]

I intentionally left out the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., from the list above. The “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that came out of the ensuing demonstrations was built on a lie, according to a Department of Justice report. Still, the false narrative stuck because Brown’s death came three weeks after Garner’s killing and was the start of what would become a harrowing year of us bearing witness to the death of young men and boys of color. And a second DOJ report on the Ferguson police department revealed the town to be a place where the constitutional rights of African Americans were trampled and deemed secondary to the financial needs of the municipality.

By the time those reports were released, Americans of all backgrounds had been protesting for months. Over time, their cries of “I can’t breathe” morphed into “Black Lives Matter” as each new video added to the evidence of unequal justice faced by young men and boys of color. A more extraordinary show of newfound understanding came last December when white Americans flooded the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite with confessions for committing and getting away with any number of offenses. Totally twisted. But I thought it a great step forward to see folks finally see and acknowledge that African Americans would never be accorded the same privilege by police that they were granted.

Since the very public death of Garner and all those who followed, we have undertaken that uncomfortable conversation on race, particularly as it pertains to law enforcement. As a result, criminal justice reform is finally gaining traction in Congress. President Obama on Thursday became the first sitting chief executive to visit a federal prison when he went to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City to discuss the issue. On the flip side, the cold-blooded murder of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu last December by a sick criminal who used the killings of Garner and Brown to try to justify his rampage reminded us all of the dangers of policing.

Days before the one-year anniversary of Garner’s killing, New York City announced a $5.9 million settlement of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his family. Numerous investigations into the events of July 17, 2014, including one by the federal government, are ongoing. But one thing has been made clear in the year since. In confrontations between African Americans and police, the scales of justice too often tilt away from fairness for blacks. More people understand that now because they have seen it with their own eyes on video.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj