Dana Milbank: Eric Garner case offers Obama a moment to seize

 

 

Dana Milbank

 

 

WASHINGTON -- The words, spoken about the Eric Garner travesty in New York, were righteous and powerful. 

 

"When you look at what they did to this guy and putting him in a chokehold like that, it's inexcusable -- absolutely inexcusable and brutal." 

 

"How this cop did not go to jail, was not held responsible, is beyond me." 

 

"This is ridiculous. ... It's obscene. It's grotesque." 

 

"This is the New York police completely out of control. ... Manslaughter absolutely should have been considered." 

 

And who uttered such phrases? The Rev. Al Sharpton? Lawyers for the Garner family? 

 

Actually, these sentiments were voiced Thursday by Glenn Beck, one of the fiercest warriors of the right. 

 

Conservatives, with a few exceptions, have responded with admirable outrage over a grand jury's failure to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was caught on video killing Garner, an unarmed African-American. Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold and ignored Garner's cries that he couldn't breathe -- even though the victim's only alleged offense had been selling untaxed cigarettes. 

 

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said he was "extremely troubled" by the video and Garner "did not deserve what happened to him." His Fox colleague Andrew Napolitano said the "grand jury made a grievous error" because it seemed police "used grossly excessive force on a non-violent, non-threatening person," while Charles Krauthammer called the decision "totally incomprehensible." 

 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, head of the House Republican Conference, called for the House to hold hearings on the case. "We need to be taking action," she told MSNBC's "Morning Joe." House Speaker John Boehner later referred to Rodgers' remarks in a news conference, agreeing that "the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here." 

 

If it is possible to say that anything good has come from such an obvious miscarriage of justice, it is that the Garner decision has rekindled, if briefly, what Franklin Roosevelt called the "warm courage of national unity." 

 

The Ferguson, Mo., decision last month, in which a grand jury declined to charge another white police officer who killed another unarmed black man, split the nation along racial and political lines, but this is one of the rare moments since the 9/11 attacks that has united left and right, black and white. It surely won't last long. The question is whether a reluctant president will seize the moment. 

 

The early signs indicate more of the same reticence. Though President Obama has spoken twice about the Garner case since the decision, White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday, asked about a "broader national effort" by the president, suggested people wait to see what Obama's new task force on policing comes up with -- in 90 days. 

 

But Obama doesn't have 90 days. If he waits, he will violate Rahm Emanuel's famous rule, expressed after Obama won the presidency in 2008: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," because it is "an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before." The Birmingham church bombing in 1963 helped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Garner case should produce more than mumbles about a task force and some modest funds for police training and body cameras -- items Obama proposed after the Ferguson grand jury decision. 

 

There are any number of bigger things Obama could do, including alternatives to grand juries. This year, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker -- no liberal -- signed first-in-the-nation legislation requiring an outside investigation whenever anybody dies in police custody, and a public report if charges are not filed. The president could use his pulpit to push for similar laws in the other states. He could at least demand a national count of police killings, which, scandalously, we still don't have. Or he could take a broader approach to racial matters and revive a rewrite of elements of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court; there is already bipartisan support for such action. 

 

In a sense, it matters less what Obama does than that he does something with this moment -- particularly because the rest of his agenda, and with it much of his legacy, is moribund on Capitol Hill. A top White House official suggested Thursday that Obama may be coming around. "We agree there is a moment here to have this conversation and make something of this," the official told me. 

 

It would be more than a shame for Obama to squander this moment of national unity. He may never get another one. 

 

 

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

 

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