Eric Garner: I can hardly remember his face

I’m seeing faces from not too long ago, just weeks, a couple of months. I’m looking at faces of protest. They are different colors. They are in different cities. Everything is different except the looks on their faces. They are the same. They are not looks of resignation, but looks of resolve.

And they are all in my mind.

I have seen that resolute spirit before, in the faces staring back from historic civil rights movement photographs, the faces of people walking across the bridge at Selma, the faces of people standing on the National Mall in August 1963, the faces of walkers watching half-full buses drive by on the streets of Montgomery, Ala. in 1955, the faces of students sitting at lunch counters while racists throw food and invective at them.

But the protests are now memories. The anger has dissipated.

A nation watched a police officer kill a black man on a public street.  The officer’s arm was around his neck, choking him. Eric Garner told him: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. ”

Eleven times, he said it. Eleven times, four officers ignored him.

He died.  A New York coroner declared it a homicide. A grand jury decided the homicide has no culprit.

And once again, the America that is ignored, that is not listened to, that is constantly burdened with the existence of being, called on the larger federal government for justice. And was denied.

We are a nation divided by income, divided by education, divided by measure of justice.

We are now a nation faced with the aftermaths of senseless deaths.

And in the case of Eric Garner, we have gone back to work, and I can hardly remember his face.

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The officer who killed him, Daniel Pantaleo, told a grand jury he was using a “wrestling move.” No prosecutor asked whether he had ever been a wrestler. Pantaleo testified he heard Garner saying he couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t believe him because he could talk. He heard him say he could not breathe, but did not believe him.

So came the wailings. And the protests. And the talks that black and brown parents have with their children about “being careful.”

It was just last summer that it happened. It was just in December that the grand jury ignored his pleas. And now, everyone has gone back to work.

And I can hardly remember Eric Garner’s face.

I am sitting and watching in my mind how thousands of people took to the streets across the country. Die-ins were held, peacefully and powerfully. T-shirts were worn by the thousands and by athletes saying “We Can’t Breathe.”

Protests are powerful, symbolic, but also useless when they stop, when they do not morph into some action.

They call attention to a problem that has been a problem for three centuries. But now, everyone has gone back to work.

And I can hardly remember Eric Garner’s face.

We’ve gone from lynchings to official public killings, a truth so evident we say it out loud. And no one is listens still – for long.

The civil rights movement didn’t end; it just lay at slumbering while folks fooled themselves into believing that a post-racial society is an actual thing.

I am bombarded by missives from hateful people (only at work, thank God) mocking the disintegration of the black family, questioning why they should care, forgetting that black family was torn apart when children were wrenched from mothers’ arms on their way to auction after the ships had docked.

We must all be involved, engaged and standing for the America we say exists, but which cannot exist when a man is slowly killed on a public sidewalk, unable to breathe and we just go back to work.

And we can’t remember his face.


ROCHELLE RILEY is a writer and blogger whose posts here are about her personal adventures. You can read her columns at and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.