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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Garner case is too hot for rational dialogue

Esaw Garner, widow of Eric Garner, is surrounded

Esaw Garner, widow of Eric Garner, is surrounded by the Rev. Al Sharpton and family as she talks to the media on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, hours after it was announced that a Staten Island grand jury decided NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who held Garner in an apparent chokehold, should not face charges stemming from the July 17 altercation. Credit: Charles Eckert

Last week, I wrote what I believed to be a thoughtful piece about racism as a follow-up to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. A number of African-Americans I know emailed nice things after reading it. It left me feeling pretty good about myself.

Three days later, I was called a "racist" on Twitter -- a "#*%! racist creep" to be exact. My crime? Tweeting the following in reaction to the Eric Garner grand jury decision: "Sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy."

That didn't go over well with @CCB5Keithfan34 of Queens, whom I'm sure is a fine person, whoever she is. Or with others who tweeted similar barbs my way. Such are the visceral reactions out there about the two grand jury decisions.

All I was trying to say was that NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo probably didn't mean to hurt Garner. He certainly didn't mean to cause his death, and a grand jury agreed. But I wanted no part of a Twitter battle in this environment, so I retired from the field feeling nauseous at being unfairly stung.

There was nothing organic about the crowds that materialized to take over bridges and highways after the Staten Island grand jury decision. They were whipped up by professional agitators like the Rev. Al Sharpton, the health care workers union, SEIU 1199, and others, just as they always are. That was no surprise. But what has been eye-opening in this case is how many people of goodwill -- black, white and other -- have looked at the very same videotape and come to strikingly different conclusions about what they saw.

It's a terrible thing to watch a man die. The first time I looked at the Garner video, I had to knuckle back tears. But not for a minute did I think the police officers involved might be subject to criminal investigation. It looked to me like a terrible accident.

That's clearly not how a lot of good people saw the video. It's not how any African-American I know saw it, and I have to respect that. The collective experiences we all bring to an incident are valid discussion points.

But discussion about the Garner tragedy can't be all one sided. It can't be all about police tactics. If we're really going to have an honest conversation about policing in inner city communities, we also have to talk about why police officers have to spend so much time in them. It's a conversation that won't happen, though, because anyone raising the point is almost instantly labeled a you know what.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.