Why impact of Eric Garner case might be much bigger than Ferguson

Michael Brown's death largely divided Americans along racial lines and political lines. The early reactions to the Eric Garner death suggest that Americans are far more united in their response.

John Minchillo/AP
Protesters participate in a "die-in" at Grand Central Station during a demonstration against a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in New York.

In the days since a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the New York Police Department officer who killed Eric Garner, so much has changed, it seems.

On one hand, the scenes across the United States today are similar to those a week ago. People have taken to the streets to protest the police killing of another unarmed black man. Last weekend, it was Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Today, it's Mr. Garner in New York. While both sets of protests have been heartfelt and passionate, they have also been leaderless and spontaneous, raising questions about what can be accomplished long term.

But even before the Staten Island grand jury decision was announced, it was clear that the two cases, while similar, were different in important ways.

Since Wednesday, it has become apparent just how important those differences might be.

Mr. Brown's death largely divided Americans along racial lines and political lines. The early reactions to the Garner death suggest that Americans are far more united in their response.

The Brown incident occurred in a town riven by racial tension and run by a white political class that has so far shown little desire to reform. Garner was killed in a city famous for its ethnic diversity and run by a new mayor whose core constituency is black voters and who is married to a black woman.

In many ways, the issues raised by Ferguson and Staten Island are the same: Police reform and racial profiling. The Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has become a rallying cry with echoes of the 1960s, suggests Peniel Joseph of Reuters.

But the manner and place of the Garner death could have a profound effect on its long-term impact.

This time, questions are being raised from all quarters of the political spectrum, from conservative bloggers to former Republican presidents.

And this time, the incident has happened in a place where the mayor will be held to account if there isn't real reform – and in a place where the police department is famous for its innovation.

The video of Garner's death is a key distinction between the two cases.

Since the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer David Pantaleo, some observers have questioned the usefulness of a new push to put body cameras on police. President Obama has promised to spend $263 million to expand the use of police body cameras.

But the entire Garner episode was caught on a civilian's cellphone camera, and there was still no indictment. What's the point of putting cameras on police, critics ask. Even Garner's mother called such programs a waste of money, according to ABC News.

But the video has been perhaps the primary factor in conservatives' support of Garner in this case. In Ferguson, the case devolved into a tangle of contradicting testimony. What was Brown really doing when he was shot? Did he really have his hands up? The grand jury testimony is inconclusive.

Conservatives trust the police more than liberals do, polls show. When in doubt, they will generally side with the police. And they did with Ferguson.

The Garner video erased those doubts for many and instead raised doubts about the police response – whether they escalated the situation unnecessarily and then failed to respond adequately when Garner cried, "I can't breathe!"

Charles Krauthammer, a Fox News contributor and leading conservative columnist, called the grand jury decision "totally incomprehensible."

Going forward, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will have a crucial role to play.

Last year, he was elected specifically for drawing a distinction between his vision for New York and the rigidly law-and-order approaches of his predecessors, Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani. His platform was based on a "tale of two cities" – how New York's poor and dispossessed had been largely ignored as Mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani built a prosperous New York for Wall Street traders and cultural elites.

Now, Mayor de Blasio's agenda has the force of moral imperative in a city that has shown at the voting booth that it wants the very sorts of reforms that protesters nationwide are demanding.

In that way, New York City has become a crucible for the entire post-Ferguson movement.

The Giuliani administration ushered in a revolution that rippled across the country with its "broken windows" policing strategy. If the police reform embraced by protesters nationwide is to permeate actual public policy across the US, that process might again very well start with the mayor of New York City.

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