“I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe… I can’t breath…” Eric Garner said that nine times as a half dozen New York City police officers threw him to the ground last Thursday, June 17, and one cop strangled him in a chokehold. Garner pleaded with police to ease up, but those words would be his last. The 43-year-old father of six went into cardiac arrest and died soon after. His friend Ramsey Orta stood by helplessly, unable to do anything but record the brutality with his phone — a tragic replay of Oscar Grant’s murder by a transit cop in San Francisco in 2008. Hundreds of headlines have been written about Eric Garner’s death this week, but words fail.
In lieu of more words, Spike Lee has responded on film, mixing the video of Eric Garner senseless killing with a scene in Do the Right Things when Radio Raheem was strangled in a similar circumstances. Do the Right Thing was fiction, but in fact that scene in Lee’s 1989 movie was based on the real-life case of Michael Stewart, a 135-lb New York graffiti artist who was pummeled into a coma in 1983 by six NYC police officers. Michael Stewart died of strangulation. The cop who murdered Oscar Grant walks free. The six NYPD cops indicted for killing Michael Stewart were also acquitted.
Ryan Coogler and Spike Lee make films that speak out against brutality, and they’re shunned for being too radical, too angry. When police beat black men to death, black filmmakers stand up and look their killers in the eye. But when black directors make movies that point a finger at murderers on the police force, all the Oscars do is look in the other direction.