Why conservatives and liberals are united on Eric Garner case

The lack of a grand jury indictment in the Michael Brown case divided conservatives and liberals. But the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case has prompted unanimous condemnation. Why? 

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
People participate in a protest in response to the grand jury's decision in the Eric Garner case in Times Square in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. The grand jury cleared the white New York City police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of Garner, an unarmed black man, who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a lawyer for the victim's family said.

Reaction to the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict police officer Darren Wilson largely divided Americans along racial and political lines, ripping open a chasm between conservatives – many of whom supported Mr. Wilson's testimony and the decision – and liberals, who saw the incident as an example of police brutality and racial injustice.

In the case of Eric Garner, reaction has been immediate and almost unanimous across the political spectrum.

In July, Mr. Garner, an unarmed black man, was confronted by several New York City police officers who suspected him of illegally selling individual cigarettes outside of a store in Staten Island. One police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a fatal chokehold when he resisted arrest. The incident was captured on video. A grand jury decided on Wednesday to not indict Pantaleo.

Reaction was swift, and unlike in the case in Ferguson, many on the political right and left united to condemn the grand jury decision, a rare event in an age of acute polarization.

The cover of the conservative New York Post says: "IT WAS NOT A CRIME," written in big, bold letters, accompanied by still frames of Pantaleo putting Garner in a chokehold.

Fox News syndicated columnist and contributor Charles Krauthammer called the grand jury’s decision "totally incomprehensible."

"I think anybody who looks at the video would think this was the wrong judgment," Krauthammer said.

"It defies reason. It makes no sense," wrote Sean Davis at the Federalist. "Just going on the plain language of the law, the police officer who killed Garner certainly appears to be guilty of second-degree manslaughter at the very least ... All we have to do is watch the video and believe our own eyes."

Leon Wolf of the conservative blog Redstate wrote, "This decision is really and truly baffling to me, and infuriating besides."

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson endorsed this statement from the conservative Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "[A] government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice."

Twitter also lit up with reaction, with many on the right uniting to condemn the decision.

In both cases, grand juries decided not to indict white police officers in the death of unarmed black men. So why the divergent reactions? What makes the Garner case so different from the incident in Ferguson?

For starters, there was video evidence in the case of Eric Garner, which provided more facts and less uncertainty than was present in the Ferguson case.

In the Michael Brown shooting, a series of questions remain unanswered: Did Brown force his way into the officer's car? Were his hands raised when he was shot? Was he charging at Wilson or surrendering? Ask different people – black, white, conservative, liberal – and you get very different answers.

Not so in the Garner case. Video footage makes it clear that Garner wasn't threatening police in the moments before police officers put him in a fatal chokehold, and that officers continued to hold him in that position after he repeated, "I can't breathe."

"Unlike the Michael Brown case, we don't have to rely on shaky and unreliable testimony from so-called eyewitnesses. We don't need to review bullet trajectories or forensics," wrote Sean Davis at The Federalist.

What's more, Garner's only apparent offense was selling individual cigarettes, which is banned in New York City – a point that angered many conservatives skeptical of cigarette taxes and the so-called nanny state.

“This man was unarmed, he was selling cigarettes – I mean this wasn't robbery, he was selling cigarettes," said Fox News anchor Greta Van Sustern. "We don’t do the death penalty for selling cigarettes illegally on the streets."

"Can you imagine what Sam Adams would have said at the news that a man had been killed over cigarette taxes?" tweeted the National Review's Charles Cooke, adding "No taxation without asphyxiation."

In that sense, conservatives saw Pantaleo as enforcing a punitive big government policy, and Garner as the victim of a nanny state.

And finally, Pantaleo used a chokehold tactic that has been banned by the New York City Police Department – a clear violation to those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Combined, the differences between the two cases are enough to unite many on the left and right against the grand jury decision in the Garner case, one observers of most political and racial stripes say is difficult to reconcile with the evidence.

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