Reflections on the recent unrest in Ferguson and New York

Eduardo Miranda is a student at The King's College. He wrote this reflection piece in light of the demonstrations that took place throughout the City this week. Protests broke out on Dec. 3 in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo, the man suspected of fatally choking Eric Garner of Staten Island. 5 December 2014

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” These words kept me up last night. They were almost as haunting as the same words uttered by Eric Garner in his last moments of life on Earth. But the words that kept me up last night weren’t Mr. Garner’s; they were the rallying cries of protesters I encountered at the foot of my apartment building on 34th Street. The Occupiers came out en masse, complete with their hapless politics. Straight out of the ash heap of history emerges the Thrasymachean advantage of the stronger–the will to power.

It is possible that the words “I can’t breathe” kept me up because they followed earlier calls to “bring the system down.” Perhaps it was because they forced me to confront alterity, an otherness in the world. Probably both.

My interest in the protests soon turned into anger. Was this not supposed to be about the excess use of the state’s authority? Was it not about the unjust treatment that a community of people has long suffered in our nation? In any case, it could not be possible that an issue of justice in our society rang synonymously with calls to abolish the system that allows everyone recourse for justice, a unique institution in the history of the world.

For those who know me, my initial reaction is not surprising. My anger soon turned into nationalism. I wanted to defend our institutions, not bring them down. I would march to the tune of Irving Berlin’s famous song, “God bless America, land that I love, stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above.”

I didn’t do that. For it seemed that it would only serve to chase the ghost of a defunct system. Further, it didn’t address the pain of the black community. It is a pain that most of us cannot really understand, but they appeal to it nonetheless. It is hard for me to articulate it, so I’ll let Benjamin Carr--Mr. Garner’s stepfather--do it. According to the New York Post, Mr. Carr, standing at the scene of his stepson’s death, proclaimed, “It ain’t worth a damn, there are two sets of laws. It’s just a license to kill a black man. Who can control the Police Department? They can shoot me the f- -k down and nobody can say anything.”

So what are they appealing to? The Rule of Law, not the rule of two sets of laws. This reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, where he appealed for rule of law over the rule of mob law, or lawlessness. Actions become clearer: bring down a system that promotes lawlessness or embrace the lawlessness itself (as is evident in Ferguson, Missouri).

Now I might better grasp Mr. Garner’s desperate last words:

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today…Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me selling cigarettes. I'm minding my business, officer; I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please. Please, don't touch me. Do not touch me…I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe."

A placard outside of First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights reads: "Right now, Jesus is saying, 'I can't breathe.'" Photo by Carly Hoilman.

Selling cigarettes or not, Mr. Garner wanted to breathe, he wanted to conduct his own affairs, without the state burdening his freedom to do so (a freedom the black community has not always enjoyed).

Just today, in one of my classes, Dr. Joshua Hershey spoke of a drive in humanity to find a purpose. I’ve seen this search appear in other places. Richard Yates, in Revolutionary Road, calls it, in a modern fashion, the hopeless emptiness. Leo Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Illyich, tells of Mr. Illyich’s search for life in the face of death. “It,, Mr. Illyich recalls, would always ”come back and stand there, and stare at him.”

What, then, as lawful citizens trying to cope with a troubled world can we do? The prophet Jeremiah relays a message to the exiled community in Babylon, instructing them to pray for the welfare of their city. Let us also pray for the Rule of Law in our city, in our country. Let us pray for the Rule of Law on the streets of Ferguson and the sidewalks of Staten Island. A rule of law that governs man, as well as the state.

There are lesser known lyrics to Mr. Berlin’s song: "While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free, Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. "