Two events unfold in a strikingly similar way, just a week apart: After an unarmed African American man dies at the hands of a white police officer, a grand jury declines to bring that officer to trial. Protests ensue.
But the political conversations surrounding the two cases have been very different.
The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., became an inkblot test illuminating the nation’s deeply rooted political and racial divides.
The fatal use of a banned chokehold on Eric Garner, an asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two, in New York City seems to have had the opposite effect — bringing wide condemnation crossing racial, partisan and ideological lines. Conservatives have joined liberals in denouncing the Staten Island grand jury’s decision Wednesday as a miscarriage of justice.
Sean Davis, founder of the conservative Web magazine the Federalist, tweeted: “The Eric Garner murder is pretty much slam-dunk second-degree manslaughter at the very least. But hey: Two Americas.” On Ferguson, by contrast, Davis called the situation “murky and muddled at best.”
And on Fox News, conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the Staten Island grand jury’s decision “totally incomprehensible.”
“It looks as if . . . they might have indicted him on something like involuntary manslaughter at the very least,” Krauthammer said. “The guy actually said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ which ought to be a signal if the guy was unarmed, and the crime was as petty as they come.”
On July 17, officers approached Garner because they believed he was selling loose cigarettes — an evasion of taxes. His struggle with officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on amateur video, leaving little doubt about the circumstances and the amount of force applied by police. In contrast, the Ferguson grand jury had to weigh conflicting versions of what occurred Aug. 9, with no similar documentary evidence.
Whether any major policy changes result from either episode remains to be seen. Justice Department investigations are underway, with the one in New York being led by U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch, who is President Obama’s nominee to replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Obama has also set up a task force on policing and intends to promote the use of body cameras on officers, among other measures to encourage trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
On Thursday, Obama called New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and discussed ways to repair relations between police and those they are supposed to protect.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said such tensions are “not just a problem in New York or Ferguson but in far too many communities across the country. He said Obama and de Blasio “pledged to work together to strengthen the trust and bond between law enforcement and the community they serve.”
A number of African American leaders have urged Obama to be more assertive in leading a national dialogue on the issue. Others say the scope of the initiative is too narrow.
Law professor Christopher Edley Jr., a former dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, directed a government-wide review of affirmative action programs during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He argued that the solution must go beyond police practices to looking at the school systems, health-care policies and other programs that “devalue” minority lives.
“The very best chance for broadening the power of the moment is if the president leads us in that direction, beyond police behavior to those deeper challenges,” Edley said. “The responses that people are talking about are overly technocratic and ultimately will have little payoff without this shift in priorities.”
Many politicians of both parties were muted or silent amid the rioting that followed the St. Louis County grand jury decision in the Ferguson case. But as peaceful protests swelled after the decision in New York on Wednesday, a number of them stepped forward and said that more scrutiny should be given to both cases.
“Clearly both of these are serious tragedies that we’ve seen in our society,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in response to a question at his weekly news conference. “I think the American people want to understand more of what the facts were. There are a lot of unanswered questions that Americans have, and frankly I have.”
Boehner said he would not rule out holding congressional hearings into the cases and the questions they raise about police practices.
At an appearance in Boston, where she had been scheduled to speak about women’s issues, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton — the presumed front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination — began by speaking about the cases in Ferguson and Staten Island.
Clinton said the U.S. criminal justice system was “out of balance,” and she added: “A lot of hearts are breaking, and we are asking ourselves: ‘Aren’t these our sons? Aren’t these our brothers?’ ”
In a late November poll by The Post and ABC News, public opinion overall was almost evenly split on the Ferguson case. The poll results contained some stark divisions: Blacks, other racial minorities and Democrats largely believed the grand jury’s decision was a miscarriage of justice; most whites and Republicans sided with the police officer in the case, Darren Wilson.
“The Garner case is much clearer in terms of the facts of the case,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “With Ferguson, there was a dispute on what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. We don’t have access to adjudicate between all these conflicting testimonies, and so in many ways, it was almost as though conversations were being had past one another on Ferguson.”
But he added that those two cases, plus the fatal shooting in 2012 of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer, “brought up many conversations within churches and within our denomination, about experiences that black Christians face that white Christians just don’t.”
Some on the right also saw in the Garner case an argument against big government. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said part of the blame should fall on New York lawmakers for imposing a $5.85-a-pack tax on cigarettes, which invites black-market evasions.
“I do blame the politician,” Paul said on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “We put our police in a dangerous situation with bad laws.”
Anne Gearan, Ed O’Keefe and Abby Ohlheiser contributed to this report.