LGBT voices conspicuously absent in the debate over Garner incident, other tragedies
The recent spate of stories like the tragic Eric Garner incident in New York City have sparked protests and outcries across the country. Some point to the endemic racism of our country as the cause, while others turn a blind eye and believe “If you don’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”
There is most likely some truth to both those positions. But that is not my point.
It was not too long ago when gay bars were routinely raided by police for the flimsiest of reasons. Lesbians and gay men were harassed because their sexual orientation was declared illegal. Transgender people were arrested for “impersonating a person of the opposite sex,” and I watched drag queens as well as transgender women hauled away by Dallas police in the early 1970s for not wearing sufficient articles of clothing deemed appropriate for their biological sex.
Those were sad times, and thankfully, now just a historical footnote. But such mistreatment didn’t end without people standing up and declaring, “Enough!”
The growing fear that we are moving into a “police state” is something of which LGBT people should take note.
An offense like the one of which Eric Garner was accused — selling loose cigarettes — should have been handled with a citation. Instead, the officer wrestled Garner to the ground and choked him to death.
The incident was caught on video, and in that video Garner can clearly be heard crying, “I can’t breathe.” But the officer continued to choke him until he stopped “resisting,” or in reality until he stopped breathing.
The Eric Garner case is but one of many in recent days and it should make LGBT people take notice. The additional moves by some legislators to make taking video of police a criminal act is even more troubling. Without witnesses, there is no accountability and though I sincerely believe the majority of law enforcement personnel are ethical and trustworthy, those who are not cannot be allowed to abuse their authority in secret.
Just as troubling are statements like these by Officer Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department: “If you don’t want to get shot, tazed, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.”
Funny, but that sounds distinctly like it is in direct opposition to the rights we were taught in school are guaranteed us as U.S. citizens by the Constitution.
Again, I do not make any blanket accusations that all police are brutal thugs who misuse their authority to abuse citizens. But I do find this trend very disturbing and something we, as a nation have to address. Add to that the “militarization” of police departments, prompted by the military selling them surplus gear, and you have a very lethal combination.
When police start looking and behaving like an occupying army, they look at citizens as the enemy. As citizens, we have a right to demand that our police fulfill their original purpose: to “protect and serve.” Once that changes to “demand and control,” we are all in trouble.
Police acting like an army sets up an automatic resistance by citizens. In a country founded on freedom, everyone bristles at seeing heavily-armed police and armored vehicles patrolling the streets. That kind of imagery is not what anyone wants, yet it is common in some municipalities. Flak jackets and helmets might be the proper gear for a SWAT team, but not for the officers on the street.
It’s time for people to have a real conversation about this. It’s time for law enforcement to stop circling the wagons and sit down with citizens and find out what is going wrong.
And it’s time LGBT people take notice and join the conversation. We need to remember that resistance to police authority by LGBT people at Stonewall eventually led to more rights. Luckily, in the 1960s police were more reluctant to use deadly force. Otherwise, today, I expect we would be calling it the “Stonewall Massacre.”
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and board member for the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2014