Book Review: “I Can’t Breathe” — Humanizing the Underclass

Follow almost any of these police brutality cases to their realpolitik conclusion and you will eventually work your way back to a monstrous truth.

I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi. Random House, 310 pages, $28.00.


By Ed Meek

Matt Taibbi is a political columnist for Rolling Stone. He has written a number of books, including Grifttopia, The Great Derangement, and Insane Clown President. You can tell from the titles just where his sympathies lie. He’s coming from the left and he’s sort of hip. (Insane Clown Posse was a rage rock group, thus the inside joke). But doesn’t that description nail Donald Trump? Taibbi is not only accurate: he’s edgy as well as funny. For example, here’s an excerpt from his recent piece on Trump in Rolling Stone, meditation on whether our President is actually bonkers:

We deserve Trump, though. God, do we deserve him. We Americans have some good qualities, too, don’t get me wrong. But we’re also a bloodthirsty Mr. Hyde nation that subsists on massacres and slave labor and leaves victims half-alive and crawling over deserts and jungles, while we sit stuffing ourselves on couches and blathering about our American exceptionalism.

To his credit, when Taibbi attacks America he always includes himself among the targets. Notice the use of the first-person plural. Yes, there are problems — but we’re all responsible, the sane and the insane.

In I Can’t Breathe, however, Taibbi maintains a pretty somber tone. The title quotes the now infamous words of Eric Garner, a peddler of illegal cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island. He was arrested by police on July 17, 2014 on (get this) “suspicion of selling single cigarettes.” After Garner protested the action, officer Panteleo of the NYPD — along with four other policemen — wrestled the man to the pavement. Asthmatic, Garner normally had problems breathing. The police pushed his face into the pavement and Panteleo kept him in a chokehold until he was cuffed and unconscious. Then they left Garner spread out on the sidewalk while they waited for an ambulance.  Seven minutes later, an ambulance arrived. The police made no attempts to resuscitate Garner, who was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later.  This was all captured on a video shot by bystander, Ramsey Orta. It is a sickening scene to watch.

Taibbi spends the first half of the book detailing Garner’s life and then chronicling the events that led up to his death. The second half of the book goes into what happened after he died, as his daughter demands justice for her father. Taibbi wisely ties Garner’s death to the news-making demise of a number of African-Americans over the last couple of years: Tamir Rice, 12 years old, shot with a toy gun in a playground; Sandra Bland, who “hanged herself in her cell” after being pulled over while driving home for illegally changing lanes; Walter Scott, “shot eight times after being pulled over for a broke taillight,” etc. He also examines the racial tensions pulled to the surface by way of the election of Trump, whose appeal, at least to some of his followers, is driven by racism.

Garner is the type of person conservatives hate. He didn’t have a job. His only income was from selling illegal cigarettes. He had kids by two women. Before he sold cigarettes, he sold drugs. He had a long record and did time. Yet Taibbi humanizes the man. Garner is well-liked. He takes care of his kids. Just before he was killed he had broken up a fight on the street. In addition, Garner’s crime at the time of his arrest could not be described as major. He buys cigarettes in a state where the taxes are low, like Virginia, and he brings them up to New York where he is able to sell them for a profit on the street because New York highly taxes cigarettes. Smuggling large amounts of cigarettes and then selling them on the street is a felony; you can get up to five years in jail for it. Of course, Garner was also not paying taxes. But is it, given the multi-billion dollar swindles committed by banksters such as Wells Fargo, that big of a crime?  Taxes on cigarettes, taxes on alcohol, they are referred to as sin taxes. Isn’t it entrepreneurial to take advantage of differences in state tax rates? It’s certainly a lot less of a crime than say, laundering Russian money or failing to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes, or using the Presidency for the sake of personal profit.

So, Garner is killed by the police. That’s just half of the story. The rest of I Can’t Breathe has to do with how we, as a society, with our compromised system of justice, handle cases like this. The medical examiner pronounces Garner’s death a homicide. The case goes to the DA (Dan Donovan), who take it to a grand jury. Customarily, because a DA presents a case to a grand jury without having to include a defense, the grand jury almost always agrees to indict. Instead, the DA in Garner’s case decided to call witnesses to back up the stories of the police. The tactic convinces the grand jury not to indict. So, the case is dropped. This, in spite of the fact that there is an eight-minute video clearly showing that the police officers are at fault. In addition, the cops go after the bystander who shot the incriminating video, eventually arresting him and sending him to jail. Donovan uses his “handling” of the case to run for Congress — and he wins!

Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter, runs into walls wherever she goes for help. It turns out that the way the city handles cases like this is the police are not punished; the police department settles with the family of the victim. Guess who ultimately pays for that?

Taibbi concludes that, on the one hand, America has changed its laws to give minorities civil rights and to protect them from discrimination. On the other, we remain a very segregated country: whites live in tony suburbs or nice urban neighborhoods, while minorities are found in the poor sections of the cities, attending underfunded schools and subject to invasive police procedures and arrests that result in mass incarceration (and sometimes death at the hands of the police).

Follow almost any of these police brutality cases to their realpolitik conclusion and you will eventually work your way back to a monstrous truth. Most of this country is invested in perpetuating the nervous cease-fire of de facto segregation, with, of course, its “garrison state” of occupied ghettos carefully kept out of sight and mind.

Taibbi is of course not the only person writing about this shameful set-up. Author Michelle Alexander calls the mass incarceration of blacks The New Jim Crow. She traces a long history of abusing, using, and then imprisoning blacks. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay collection We Were Eight years in Power makes a strong case that racism pretty well explains why Trump was elected. Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy outlines case after case of unjust convictions, often with African Americans ending up on Death Row. In some instances, Stevenson, a lawyer, was able to appeal and overturn verdicts.


The public disdain for Trump is often about what he does: his tweets, his lies, his ill-informed positions, his mistreatment of women, his attacks on anyone who threatens him. But, in many ways, the more disturbing aspect of the Trump election is what it reveals about ourselves, about what we are willing to tolerate in order to live the way we do, to be as comfortable as we are. Nine years ago, Americans were congratulating themselves for being so admirably egalitarian. Imagine.

We haven’t advanced quite as much as we thought. Because of the IPhone. there is now concrete evidence of how little black lives matter to some (not all, of course) of our men in in blue. And how many Americans support (or tolerate) police brutality. There was quite a bit of racial resentment building during Barak Obama’s eight years in office — it has now been unleashed.

And that hatred has created an alternative reality. We now know that millions of white males consider themselves the victims of female empowerment, affirmative action, and immigration. Apparently, they were not ready for a female commander-in-chief. In fact, they don’t seem to be interested in solving the problem of sexual harassment. What Trump supporters hate most, though, is that minorities have cut in line, supposedly collecting all those food stamps, free housing, and healthcare. Those very same takers, according to Rush Limbaugh, are the ones who triggered the recession by taking out loans they couldn’t pay back. (The poor big banks were the victims!) Garner is the typical minority, selling drugs on the street and resisting arrest. No wonder they end up in jail or dead at the hands of the police who risk their lives to protect America.

In 1992, Andrew Hacker wrote a great book called Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. For an in-depth look at one of those nations, read I Can’t Breathe.

Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.

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