Spike Lee Shows Just How Much America’s Still Locked in a Racial Chokehold

His mash-up of footage of the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner and ‘Do the Right Thing’ is a reminder of how far we have to go on race.
Jul 24, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Back in the summer of 1989, director Spike Lee released the most controversial film of the year, his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. The movie “tells an honest, unsentimental story about those who are left behind,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. With the closing scene’s choking death of boom box–carrying Radio Raheem at the hands of a New York City police officer, the film also showed mainstream America how easily a black man can become a victim of police brutality.

The murder of Radio Raheem was fictional. The alleged choking death of 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner caused by an NYPD officer on July 17 is not. With his mash-up of the fictitious death of Radio Raheem and the death of Garner, which was caught on cell phone video, Lee shows just how horrifically his 25-year-old work of art is still imitating life.

It’s gut-wrenching to watch the footage of an officer’s forearm pressing forcefully against Garner’s throat in an apparent chokehold. The police had accused him of selling individual untaxed cigarettes, and Garner began complaining that he was sick of the cops harassing him. Then the chokehold, a tactic banned by the NYPD, ensued. It’s tough to hear Garner gasping, saying “I can’t breathe” over and over. Those may have been his last words.

“I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters,” Ebert wrote about Do the Right Thing in ’89. “Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations.”

We should seek to understand the fears and frustrations of all the players in our real-life racial quagmire. But when more than 88 percent of the 5 million stop-and-frisk incidents recorded in New York City between 2002 and 2013 resulted in no evidence of impropriety, one point is undeniable: No one should be harassed, perceived as a threat, or automatically approached with violence because of the color of his or her skin.

“I am also sensitive to the fact that being a police officer requires an enormous amount of split-second decision making and failure to use the right amount of discretion can be the difference between life and death,” Charles F. Coleman Jr. wrote at Ebony. “However, as a black man, the messages sent to me in the wake of Garner’s death are a stark reminder of what he, I, and so many others like us represent to America.”

The officer who put Garner in a chokehold has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton also declared that all 35,000 officers will be retrained in the use of force. That solution is too late for Garner. The father of six was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery on Wednesday. Lee reminds us so poignantly, after Radio Raheem and days after Garner’s death, that America has yet to escape its own racial chokehold.