I Can't Breathe: Matt Taibbi's scorching book on the murder of Eric Garner and the system that let the killers get away with it
Matt Taibbi is one of the best political writers working in the USA today, someone who can use the small, novelistic details of individuals' lives illuminate the vast, systemic problems that poison our lives and shame our honor; his 2014 book The Divide conducts a wide-ranging inquiry into the impunity of corporate criminals and the kafkaesque injustices visited on the poor people they victimize; in I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, Taibbi narrows his focus to the police murder of Eric Garner, a Staten Island fixture and father, and the system that put murderers in uniform in his path.
Taibbi opens the book with a masterful, novelistic account of the racial divide in Staten Island, the brutal impunity of the NYPD, the lives of the people they stalk, humiliate, beat, and frame. He introduces us to Tomkins Park, the neighborhood where Eric Garner was a fixture, selling untaxed cigarettes he brought in from out of state, and to Garner himself, a complicated, funny, bright, unlucky, likable man whose bad luck and bad choices had put him on that corner, selling smokes to keep his family fed, clothed and sheltered.
As Taibbi unravels the story of Garner, the circumstances that led to him being choked to death by a group of police officers who went on to terrorize Garner's friend for recording a video of the murder and releasing it, who faced no meaningful penalties -- and who, we learn, had long rapsheets for brutal, sadistic policing, he weaves the long history and diverse social and political circumstances that led to that moment.
Taibbi's book is part history lesson, part political science, part biography (of several people, not all of them very nice), part on-the-scene reporting, part lawsplainer. He ranges over statistical models for predictive policing, the realpolitik of New York, where Democrats and Republicans alike have been critical to turning the city into a laboratory for testing and refining racist policing, housing, incarceration, and harassment policies.
Taibbi is a synthesist, able to dig into the personal history of the fathers of "broken windows policing," of rival black activist groups, of Garner and his family, tell their stories, show where they fit in a much larger, systemic analysis of how the nuts-and-bolts of institutional racism and police impunity.
In building understanding, Taibbi is always explaining, but never excusing. Just because Taibbi explains how the quota systems and official stonewalling creates a hospitable climate for sadistic, murdering rapists -- just because he shows that ultimately, these bad cops are taking the rap for an even worse system -- it doesn't follow that he's asking us to shed a tear for the poor cops who choked Eric Garner to death on a city street.
Taibbi's analysis also ranges over the explosion of anti-police-violence demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the Garner killing, after the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many other black men and women who were murdered by police officers who nearly never, ever paid any consequences for it. He places the murder of Eric Garner in the context of the election of an openly white supremacist president, and the rage and outrage that followed that election.
All this makes for a book that's as riveting as any novel, and as educational as any manifesto. Like The Divide, it is essential reading that captures a moment that the whole nation is wrestling with, and whose consequences could not be more important to us all.
One note on Taibbi himself: a few months ago, he was embroiled in a scandal of his own when passages from The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, a book he co-authored in 2000, were reprinted. The book is a memoir of Taibbi's tenure as a gonzo editor in post-Soviet Russia, co-written with his co-editor, Mark Ames, and it is a gross, tasteless -- and, it turns out, largely fictional -- tale.
The passages that made headlines were ones in which Taibbi and Ames detail subjecting female subordinates to cruel and degrading sexual harassment. When they broke, Taibbi explained that these passages had been written by Ames and were fictional. This struck many people as lame and not-very-credible excuses, but it appears they were true -- journalists who tracked down the co-workers in the book confirmed with them that none of the lurid, awful activities took place.
Which doesn't let Taibbi off the hook: his transgression isn't subjecting women to sexual violence and harassment: it's thinking that making up "gonzo" stories about this kind of thing was funny (rather than offensive and harmful in their own right), and co-signing his name to a published volume of these tales.
This isn't a good thing to have done, but it's also not in the same universe as committing actual sexual assaults. It definitely lowered my opinion of Taibbi, but I feel like making stupid, shitty "jokes" is ultimately a forgivable sin, and the kind of thing that Taibbi has made substantial amends for.
I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street [Matt Taibbi/Random House]
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