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Editorial: Garner video is evidence of what must change

A memorial to Eric Garner on Staten Island.

A memorial to Eric Garner on Staten Island. He died after he was taken into police custody. Credit: GETTY IMAGES/ Spencer Platt

It seems the video of Eric Garner being choked to the ground wasn't definitive to a Staten Island grand jury.

But the video matters to the nation.

The video matters because it made visible and unavoidable something that lurks beneath the surface, camouflaged by conflicting testimony and uncertainty, and our fundamental biases. The video matters because it made all of us, regardless of how we feel about race or the police, confront the idea that it can be legal for cops to kill black males who present no danger.

Eric Garner is not Michael Brown. Members of the grand jury that considered the killing of Brown by police Officer Darren Wilson heard conflicting testimony. Was Brown charging? Were his arms up in a gesture of surrender? Who can really say for sure? But in the case of Garner, we are all witnesses. We can watch the video of his confrontation with police officers, including Daniel Pantaleo, who took him down. We can observe Garner's lack of aggression, and hear him say over and over, "I can't breathe."

Thursday, the day after we learned that Pantaleo would not face criminal charges, the discussion turned to what has to change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that race and the state's justice system would be a focus of next year's legislative session. Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined extensive retraining for NYPD officers. And departing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he will focus the next phase of his career on bridging the cop-community divide.

Why take a case like this to a grand jury, rather than have a prosecutor charge Pantaleo? Should cases involving police officers be referred to special prosecutors? Are local district attorneys like Staten Island's Daniel Donovan so close to police that they can't be independent enough to pursue those officers? How do we reinvent police training and attitudes to avoid these situations? We'll have a commission, certainly, or a task force, or both, locally and nationally, and we should.

These are worthy pursuits, but they are only detours and patches. Fundamental change is needed. As individuals and families and communities, we must examine our mindsets and prejudices to understand how Garner's death happened and could go unpunished. And how to become a nation where such deaths are rare and have consequences.

The Garner case has many law-and-order conservatives, normally staunch allies of the police, appalled at the lack of an indictment. So start with this question: What if there had been no video? How many of us would argue that Pantaleo barely touched Garner or that Garner was aggressive, and that witnesses who said otherwise were lying?

After all, we hear it now: "It's not like Garner hasn't been in trouble before," or, "If he hadn't resisted arrest, he'd still be alive."

This time, though, no one can honestly say that, and so the problems of race and the police -- and race and . . . all of us -- are out of hiding.

We don't yet know why the video didn't matter to that Staten Island grand jury. Perhaps we never will. But we have our work cut out as a nation to show that it really, truly matters to us.