On July 19, 2014 on a street corner of Staten Island an African-American man named Eric Garner died while being arrested by police for selling “loosies” or individual, untaxed cigarettes. Some say this death was the result of an illegal choke hold, captured on a now well known cell phone video. Once again, an unarmed black man has died in police custody. Once again, the dividing wall of enmity between the police and communities of color is re- fortified with mortar made of tears, anger, outrage, and mutual distrust. As a person of faith committed to police reform as well as a retired NYPD Captain, I feel obliged to speak up about this.
On the one hand, I really want to see change. The legacy of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, of unconstitutional, quota-based, stop question and frisk tactics, and racial profiling must end. We need much more community-based policing, increased cultural sensitivity, and just plain R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the people the police are supposed to protect and serve. I can only imagine the pain Eric Garner’s family and loved ones are going through and the anger they must feel. I am sure it seems like part of the long standing assault on the lives of black men in which police brutality is often at the center.
However, in this case, I honestly don’t think that is what happened. Watching this tape, I see a number of tactical errors, ways in which the job might have been done better, but I don’t see brutality. I am not alone in that thinking. Just about every police officer I talk to – active and retired, of all races, across the political spectrum – is saying the same thing. What the tape shows is not a choke hold. It is a head lock. When a person resists arrest, as Garner was doing, we are taught to take them face down to the ground as quickly as possible in order to handcuff them. A head lock is one way that is done. A head lock looks like a choke hold because the officer’s arms are around the suspect’s neck, but it differs from a choke hold because there is no pressure to the wind pipe or the neck. We still await the final medical examiner’s report but preliminary findings indicate that there was no injury to the neck and a heart attack, not asphyxiation, was the cause of death.
Let’s not forget, we are talking about a man with many health problems. It is quite possible that the stress of the arrest was more than his body could take. But that doesn’t mean the police, who had no way of knowing his medical history, either intentionally or recklessly killed him.
Like everyone, I want a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this tragedy. Like anyone, I can be wrong. This is just an opinion on a blog. But it is an informed opinion. I would ask activists to at least consider it.
What we need is radical, systemic change not the scapegoating of a few police officers who may well have done no wrong.
Come to think of it, my previous blog post on the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case left out my own personal and theological reflections on the subject of birth control and abortion. So, in the interest of fuller disclosure (What else do we do on the internet but make sure ALL our business is out there?) let me share my thoughts.
I am actually very sympathetic to the view expressed by the owners of Hobby Lobby that life begins at the moment of conception, meaning the moment sperm and egg unite. I personally share that belief. I take that position because I believe that human life is profoundly sacred and deserves to be liberally defined.
Some would say the Bible clearly supports the belief that unborn life is sacred. Those who hold this view have plenty of scriptures to choose from in which God expresses God’s love for humanity, including knowledge of and care for us while we are still in the womb. However, there are also quite a few troubling passages that seem to point in the opposite direction toward a devaluing of both female AND unborn life.
For example, the only time abortion itself is – arguably – mentioned is in Numbers 5 which describes a practice in which a wife suspected of adultery is made to swallow a “water that brings the curse” which ” shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. “(Num 5:27 NRS) In other words, at least in this story, unborn life is not so sacred when it comes to controlling women.
The Bible is also not at all univocal in its defense of all human life as equally valuable. For example, Leviticus 17 describes the lives of babies and children as less valuable than the lives of older people and the lives of women as less valuable than the lives of men. We read there that, when it comes to putting a monetary value on human life ” the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female.(Lev 27:3-5 NRS) Again, the devaluation of women goes hand in hand with the devaluation of children, both born and unborn.
In other words, this business of devaluing the lives of children, both born and unborn, tends to go hand in hand with devaluing the lives of women as well.
That is why I, as a Christian and as a feminist, espousing the values of nonviolence and equality of all persons, cannot take abortion lightly. In all fairness, I doubt many women Christian or otherwise do.
My own personal concern that I not destroy unborn life in my own body led me, during my own childbearing years, to refuse to use those methods of birth control that the owners of Hobby Lobby object to. If, as I reasoned, I believe life begins at conception, then the IUD and forms of the pill that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg were not OK with me. For me, this was not a morally acceptable choice. When I tried to explain this to my gynecologist, she refused to respect my decision. So I fired her and found another doctor.
I insisted on my right to act in accordance with my own religious convictions. So, in that sense, I am sympathetic with the owners of Hobby Lobby and others in the “pro-life” movement. BUT, and this is a big but, I cannot go along with the idea that it is OK to force these views on others. We simply cannot champion the rights of the unborn by disrespecting the moral agency of women.
Religious freedom means having the right to form and act upon our own religious convictions. It does not include the right to impose those convictions on others.
Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a “family owned Christian” company named Hobby Lobby has the right to refuse to provide health insurance coverage to its employees that would include certain both abortion and some forms of birth control for women because to do so would supposedly interfere with the owner/employer’s religious freedom.
This decision is being hailed as both a “pro-life” victory and a victory for religious freedom. I say it is neither.
It is not a “pro-life” victory because nothing is happening in the lives of women as a result of this decision that will make abortions less likely. There are, to date, only two things that have been proven to reduce abortion – access to birth control and sex education, neither of which Hobby Lobby’s owners support and neither of which are promoted by this decision. So, while I can understand how some might see this as a victory for the unborn, I must beg to differ. Making life harder for women via coercive interference in their reproductive choices rarely has that effect. They simply seek these services elsewhere, in this case by utilizing federally supported health care.
This decision is not good news for religious freedom either, not by a very long shot. Religious freedom, as guaranteed by the first amendment of our Constitution, is based on the very good idea that the institutional power of government should not be used to favor one religion over another. So why is it OK for business owners to use their institutional power as employers to do exactly the same thing?
And then there’s the thing about the company itself being Christian. Really? Did it get baptized and everything? I mean come on. I know there is a lot of room for theological debate over what does and does not constitute a Christian but I thought we all at least agreed that you kind of have to be a human being first, right?
You also have to make a free choice.
We Christians, particularly us Baptists, used to respect that freedom to the point where we fought hard to make sure that there would be no state religion in America and every person would be free to worship (or not) as he or she pleased.
So now we have corporate religion instead?
Ruth Ginsberg was right. “The court has ventured into a minefield.” It is a sad day for freedom.