Reflections on the anniversary of Eric Garner’s murder; Or: Actually, smartass, sometimes you *can* talk when you can’t breathe


I’ve heard it dozens of times and a year on, I’m still hearing it: If Eric Garner really couldn’t breathe due to chokehold, he couldn’t possibly have said (as he did repeatedly) “I can’t breathe.” The implication of course is that Garner was all drama and the police were correct to ignore his pleas.

Behind this response is, as always, plain and simple racism. But it also stems from a misplaced focus on the “chokehold” aspect of the case. This focus is somewhat understandable: The chokehold launched the assault on Garner, it’s a distinct and recognizable move, it’s dramatic—and it’s illegal. Nonetheless, this emphasis has somewhat warped the analysis on “both sides.”

Windpipe constriction versus chest compression

Yes, a chokehold which completely cuts off the windpipe prevents both breathing and speech. But this is irrelevant to Garner’s case. For one, the chokehold had already been released by the first time Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”

Alongside “neck compression,” the medical examiner cited “chest compression” as cause of death. The latter ostensibly occurred when Garner was taken to the ground, prone and face-down. This alone can give a man of his size trouble breathing, but it was severely exacerbated when Officer Pantaleo proceeded to fucking kneel on his head and upper back. It was this move which immediately precipitated the first “I can’t breathe” plea. At which point, six more officers piled on top of Garner, the weight and strength of each aggravating the compression further.

Unlike a chokehold, chest compression doesn’t have to prevent speech. The key to speech is exhalation. Windpipe restriction prevents this, along with inhalation. But chest compression is a one way street: It permits exhalation—at least to the point where the air already in the lungs when the compression occurs is exhausted. However, it does not permit inhalation, so once this air is up, speech is done so long as the compression remains.

(Note: This is not the say the chokehold wasn’t a contributor to Garner’s death. Among other things, it would have induced stress and accelerated his heart rate, which would have quickened his breathing; this in turn made compression more dangerous, as the amount of air needed across a given period was increased.)

I bring all this up because it remains standard police practice to restrain and cuff suspects prone on their stomachs—a process which can take several minutes. This, even as the practice is being rapidly abandoned by mental health facilities across the country in light of its demonstrated potential to kill (see Restraint-Related Positional Asphyxia).

Deeper issues: White charity is for other whites

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume the widespread perception—that Garner made his statements while in a chokehold—because it points to deeper issues.

To see this, let’s rewind a bit. The opinion of our smartass observer is that Garner was not subject to a “real” (i.e., dangerous, breath-restricting) chokehold because he was (still) able to speak during this event.

This view assumes that a chokehold would have had to have been perfectly secure throughout this event. Clearly however, in a “tussle,” it is possible for the choker’s grip to tighten and then loosen as the strugglers’ bodies move relative to one another. It seems reasonable that someone in Garner’s position might experience inability to breathe when the grip is tight, and then, when it loosens a bit, exclaim “I can’t breathe” in reference to what he fears is an ongoing pattern of loosening and retightening-to-come.

Surely a man in such a position can be forgiven for not taking the time to qualify for his attackers, “I couldn’t breathe a second ago, and I anticipate that if this struggle continues in this manner I’ll not be able to breathe again momentarily.”

* * *

The fact that the assholes don’t even entertain this interpretation of Garner’s last words is profoundly telling. It has to be. I mean, shit. We interpret things this way all the time: e.g. When someone answers the phone with “I can’t talk right now,” nobody thinks, “That lying asshole—how could he not talk when he had to talk to even tell me that?”

That would be absurd, right? So extend the same fucking imaginative charity to Eric Garner: What might the man have meant? Is there some non-absurd intention we can reasonably tease out of his words? If you make that move for other white people every day but maintain a goofy hyper-literalism for Garner, there has to be a reason. And that reason is almost certainly that you’re a racist prick.


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