Bob McManus wrote an opinion piece for the New York Post titled “Blame only the man who tragically decided to resist.” McManus claims that Eric Garner, a man killed for selling cigarettes, basically had it coming.
Let’s start with the most glaring problem in the article. Speaking of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown, McManus says “tragically, stupidly, fatally,inexplicably — each fought the law.” Later, McManus points out that Garner “began struggling with the arresting officer.” I have to wonder what exactly McManus qualifies as “fighting the law”. Does one fight the law whenever one questions an officer’s actions? Is it wrong to tell a cop to his face that the cop should not be enforcing an unjust law? And how are Garner’s actions considered “struggling?” He didn’t fight back. His only resistance was not making it easy for the cops to cuff him.
What about the police response to this insignificant amount of resistance? Is slamming Garner to the ground and piling multiple grown men on top of him while Garner repeatedly states that he cannot breathe a justifiable response? People are outraged about this situation because they intuitively know it is not.
Even if we ignore these glaring issues, what were the cops doing confronting Garner in the first place? McManus points out that Garner broke the law. He sold untaxed cigarettes. This line of thinking – that simply breaking the law means cops should be allowed to use violence against someone – is an incorrect and dangerous way of thinking.
Why should someone be obligated to follow the law just because it’s the law? Simple common sense would dictate this is not the case. If a law said that citizens must shoot any person with brown hair, no reasonable person would agree that the law should be followed or enforced. If I followed the law, I would be a murderer. And if I didn’t follow the law and police arrested me, they would clearly be wrong. We would end up with a society where the only people not imprisoned are those willing to commit murder.
So where do we draw the line? Libertarians use the Non-Aggression Principle for guidance. If someone is not violating the natural rights of another, you are unjustified in using violence against them. For a more thorough examination of when coercion is justified, I highly recommend Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority.”
Imagine Sam, a homeowner, requires Mary to sign a contract before Mary is allowed inside his home. The contract agrees that Mary will pay Sam $5 for every pack of cigarettes she sells inside his home. In this case, Sam has explicit consent from Mary, thereby making his right to enforce this rule more clear-cut than the government’s right to enforce the cigarette tax law. One day, Mary sells a pack of cigarettes and neglects to pay Sam the money, thinking she can get away with it. What are Sam’s allowable courses of action? He is entitled to ask Mary to leave his home. He is probably justified in physically removing her from his home if she refused to leave. He would not, however, be permitted to kidnap her (in the government’s case, take her to prison). He would also not be permitted to take any violent action which might physically harm her, like slamming her to the ground. Most importantly, if Sam’s violent actions led to Mary’s death, any reasonable person would consider him a murderer. This is particularly the case if there was evidence that Mary repeatedly requested that Sam let her go because she could not breathe or faced other life-threatening symptoms.
Common sense should tell you that Sam is a murderer if Mary dies in this situation. The government is even more to blame, since their justification for enforcing the cigarette tax law is less obvious than Sam’s right to enforce rules within his home.
Later in McManus’s article, he says “The law gives cops the benefit of every reasonable doubt in the good-faith performance of their duties — and who would really have it any other way?”
I can think of few scenarios more terrifying than a world in which the only people who are permitted to use violence are also the least likely to face repurcussions. Why do so many people have such low standards where the government is concerned?
McManus claims, “Cops who need to worry about whether the slightest mishap…might result in criminal charges and a prison term are not cops who are going to put the public’s interests first.” What basis does he have for claiming this? To me it seems the opposite. If Officer Damico, Garner’s arresting officer, had to worry about his confrontation with Garner possibly leading to violence and as a result, the chance of criminal charges, then Garner might still be alive today. Cops might think twice about enforcing unjust laws and instead focus on more clear-cut rights violations.
But we know that won’t happen. Eric Garner’s death and the lack of justice has at its root the police monopoly on force. Government and police have, by design, a monopoly on violence and justice. What normal characteristics do we associate with monopolies? Economic inefficiency, poorer quality of service over time, and lack of accountability. We see this lack of quality and accountability when a man dies over cigarettes and no one is held responsible.
Eric Garner is blameless in this situation. He made peaceful, consensual transactions with other adults over the sale of cigarettes. He was not afraid to tell police to stop enforcing an unjust law. McManus demonstrates the unfortunately familiar phenomenon of throwing common sense and basic empathy out the window when the words “government” or “police” come anywhere near the conversation.