Street Corner Soapbox: Cliven Bundy, Eric Garner, and the separate and unequal legal systems for blacks and whites

Categories:      News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, December 10th, 2014 at 6:15 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Cliven Bundy, Eric Garner, and the separate and unequal legal systems for blacks and whites by Jay Stevens
Credit: Peter Stevens

Cliven Bundy has been busy in recent months. He talks with journalists and reporters from around the world. He makes videos endorsing political candidates. He attends and speaks at campaign events. He's called out Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Harry Reid. He's even promoting a book written about him and his standoff against the federal Bureau of Land Management.

And he continues to graze his cattle – still on federal land without paying a dime in fees – unmolested by federal agents.

Bundy, of course, is the Nevada rancher that refused to pay more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and court fines, and ignored several court injunctions ordering him to remove his cattle from federal land. Invoking extremist “sovereign” ideology, which refuses to recognize federal authority, Bundy in April appealed to a number of right-wing groups – including militia groups – to protect his property from federal agents. They came. Hundreds of militia members came, heavily armed, and camped on Bundy property. On April 12, armed protesters confronted two-dozen BLM officers, forcing them to return Bundy’s animals rounded up from federal land. Soon after, Bundy called on all local sheriffs to disarm federal agents in their jurisdictions.

That is, Bundy stole. Ignored court orders. Pulled guns on the officers sent to enforce the law. And then called on people to rise up against the government. And he's free. More than free, he's thriving as a celebrity, and as a hero to some.

It is not because he is a patriot or a good American. It is not because he is a beacon of freedom. It is not because he is the vanguard of a movement that will remove Americans from under the boot heel of federal tyranny. He is none of these things. He is a thief and a bully.

The High Country News recently requested information on threats and violence levied against public land managers and received thousands of pages of unreported incidents, from death threats to firebombing Forest Service offices to shootings. One report told of how a forest ranger on an ATV tried to pass a silver pickup on a logging road, only to have the driver get out, grab the ranger by the throat and tell him he didn't “own the road.” Another told of how a woman refused to let a ranger inspect her hunting license, claiming a deer kill was “private property,” and pushed the ranger – her husband appeared, holding a rifle on the ranger. A third told of a Forest Service firefighter on a fire prevention patrol, who was shot at by a sniper.

What they found was that federal employees in the West face systemic, violent harassment, often by people claiming “sovereignty” from or animosity towards federal authority. That is, Bundy – though an extreme case – is not unusual in his violent resistance to the law in the West. That Bundy has seemed to get away with his criminal acts also fits a pattern: Federal agencies tolerate the abuse, even hide from the public the extent to which it's happening.

Rural white westerners get away with a lot of shit.

Eric Garner is dead.

Garner, of course, is the man a Staten Island police officer choked to death with a restraining technique banned by the New York City police department. Suspected of selling black-market cigarettes, Garner was confronted by officers on July 17. On the video of the incident taken by a bystander, you can hear Garner tell the police, “every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today.” Later, Garner says, “I'm minding my business. Please leave me alone.” An officer grabs Garner around the neck, and Garner clearly says, eleven times in rapid succession, “I can't breathe.” They fall to the ground. You can't see Garner anymore, surrounded by four officers who all pile on him, but later you can see him lying still.

An ambulance was called. Garner was pronounced dead an hour later, his death attributed to “compression to the neck.”

A Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantelo, the officer who killed Garner, on any charge. That decision echoes the lack of an indictment against Darren Wilson, who shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In both cases, legal experts were left scratching their heads as to why indictments weren't brought. Grand juries, after all, only approve of charges; they don't require the same level of evidence needed to convict. “As a matter of process, the route to failure to indict is probably simple,” writes Amy Davidson for The New Yorker, “the prosecutor who presented the case led the grand jurors that way.

“That's how grand juries tend to work.”

Some, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who blame cigarette taxes for the incident – “we put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws,” said the Senator – miss the point entirely. This isn't a vast government conspiracy looking to use its iron boot to crush tax delinquents. The Garner incident is how police harassment of African-American communities works. It's “broken window” policing – going aggressively after petty crimes in the hope that it discourages bigger crimes – and was a big part of former mayor Rudy Giuliani's crime policy. If you crack down on public urination, graffiti and, yes, illegal vending, goes the theory, you prevent drug dealing and violent crime.

The result? At best, lengthy criminal records for blacks for minor crimes – a fragmenting and debilitating obstacle to jobs, housing, and quality of life for an entire social group. At worst, violent enforcement by police that results in injury and death. Stomping a man's head for selling pot. Choking a pregnant woman for grilling on the sidewalk. Cigarette taxes are the means, not the cause, of police harassment. D. Brian Burghart – author of “Fatal Encounters,” an attempt to catalog police killings across the country, despite the obstruction of state and local governments and local media – revealed what he learned from his research: “You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men.”

And if you doubt that African Americans receive a different kind of justice than white Americans, check out the Twitter hashtag, “#alivewhileblack.” “Got raped+robbed,” tweets one woman. “Police took forever to interview me, mentioned that women sometimes like to hide 'gambling, overspending.'” Another writes, “Pulled over with my mom. People think shes white, she was driving. Cops asked for my ID and license 'for her protection.'” “Walking to library,” writes another, “campus security stops me and asks for ID. Several times. Claims I don't 'look' like a law student.”

What Eric Garner and Cliven Bundy show is that there are two legal systems operating in the United States. One for whites, one for blacks.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.

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