Jim Crow is back — and deadlier than ever. While cities across the nation have embraced tactics to combat urban crime, poor city dwellers, most of them black and brown, have been subjected to intense police scrutiny, routine humiliations and fatal encounters virtually unheard of in more affluent — and more white — suburbs.
Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi’s new book, “I Can’t Breathe,” documents the historical and physical forces that collided at 202 Bay St. on July 17, 2014, when Staten Island police notoriously strangled Eric Garner to death, on camera. Taibbi has written a profoundly good and well-researched book that dissects the moment when bad policy and bad policing aligned to execute a down-on-his-luck ex-con.
As Taibbi’s research makes clear, to be young, black and out in public in Staten Island is to be a target for the local police department, which gauges its effectiveness by racking up “contacts” and arrest statistics, even when subjects are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.
He portrays Staten Island as the po’ mouth cousin of New York City, the borough with a chip on its shoulder, Manhattan’s garbage dump, a segregated, working-class sticks with its own Mason-Dixon Line separating the white southern half of the island from the black north.
We meet Garner as an ex-con selling bootleg cigarettes, his sole quasi-legitimate means of supporting his family. But when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration sought to plug the city’s 9/11 budget shortage with an 1,800 percent tax hike on tobacco, Garner became the target of a police state that increasingly hounded him until he figuratively — and then literally — couldn’t breathe.
Taibbi also analyzes the crime prevention strategy known as “broken windows.” Using the Supreme Court’s standard of reasonable suspicion, police targeted low-grade nuisances to curtail the incidence of more serious crimes. Fix the broken windows in a neighborhood, the theory ran, and the murder rate will decline.
But with more “broken windows” in high-poverty minority neighborhoods, the contacts between police and the citizens of Staten Island spiked. After 300 pages, the reader is left with the cumulative impact of one horrific encounter with “reasonable suspicion” after another — unprovoked beatings, strip searches in the middle of the street, planted evidence, unjustifiable cause, plea deals and reduced sentences for crimes never committed — all meted out on black males.
Taibbi has had his own troubles of late. But those should not overshadow his keen analysis of how urban policing in New York City has turned into state persecution. The automatic suspicion attributed to being young, black and male in Staten Island raises the question of whether one can coexist with an aggressive police force deputized to manufacture enforcement statistics. In Garner’s case, tragically, the answer was no.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer and a regular contributor to the National Book Review.
I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street
By: Matt Taibbi.
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 336 pages, $28.