Who Killed Eric Garner?

Eric Garner’s murder is not only about the justice system. It’s about how capitalism creates racialized categories of “surplus” people.

A protester in Manhattan following a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. Kena Betancur / Getty

We all saw Eric Garner die. We all, George W. Bush included, agree that Eric Garner was murdered. But such superficial agreement risks papering over the real causes of his death, making it certain that something like this will happen again. We all bore witness to the crime, but now we have to ask ourselves, who really killed Eric Garner?

Despite what the criminal justice system says, the obvious answer is Daniel Pantaleo, and it must never be forgotten that this man is a murderer. What’s more, as many have argued, Pantaleo’s crime was made possible precisely because of a deeply entrenched system of institutional racism. And this has logically been met with a demand to fix what is seen as a broken justice system. Yet there is a risk that a too-narrow focus on the police, courts, and the justice system alone will obscure the deeper causes of Garner’s death.

The Staten Island resident was allegedly selling individual cigarettes when he was killed. New York City’s total cigarette tax, which is $5.85 per pack, creates a kind of black market in cigarettes, and consequently an opportunity for some — like Garner, whose asthma forced him to quit his job — to cobble together a living.

Garner was thus one of the tens of millions in the United States who engage in informal, illegal, or under-the-table work to get by — whether selling knock-off handbags, hawking homemade jewelry, dealing drugs, pirating media, working without papers, performing on the streets, or peddling loosies.

This is not a marginal or aberrant phenomenon. Since capitalism “begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living,” historian Michael Denning writes, “unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually.” Full, fair, free employment is a myth.

If those who belong to this “wageless life” find formal jobs, they’re usually on a temporary or seasonal basis, with cripplingly low pay. When not formally employed, a condition which in some cases may last an entire lifetime, people have to fend for themselves. But many either do not qualify for social services, or those services themselves are disappearing. Rent is too high, food is too pricey, and health care is too expensive. Millions of people find themselves deprived of life’s necessities.

Marx tried to explain the historical emergence of this wageless life by showing how capitalism is itself structurally incapable of fully employing everyone who depends on wages to live. By necessity capitalism produces “a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population.”

And the perpetual creation of what he called a “relative surplus population,” to which “every worker belongs” when “only partially employed or wholly unemployed,” is marked by misery, suffering, and “possible death.” This is a life of violence, and a constitutive feature of capitalism.

As Garner’s death shows, the production of a surplus population is closely intertwined with racism. The history of capitalism demonstrates that racial categories are constantly incorporated, and in fact reconstituted, by the processes that generate dispossessed, disciplined, terrorized surplus populations.

Through legal discrimination, police violence, gentrification, underfunded schools, and overcrowded prisons, countless African Americans, Latinos, and other “minorities” are designated as expendable, killable. Internationally, this devaluation not only justifies imperialist wars, but also marks off entire peoples as always-already victims of famine, genocide, or disease. At home, it’s precisely this process that killed Mike Brown, Garner, and countless others.

Today, the state actively generates the conditions of austerity that force people like Garner to survive by whatever means necessary — then watches them at every corner, ready to police, imprison, or murder them for daring to survive. Those deemed superfluous live in an existential bind: when they look for support, they are ignored; when they find ways to get by, they are harassed. In Garner’s unforgettable words, “every time you see me, you want to mess with me.”

Garner’s murder is therefore not only about the justice system. It’s also about how capitalism creates racialized categories of “surplus” people. We have to question not just the police, the courts, and the judicial system that commit and cover up such killings, but the social system that makes it all possible. We must therefore take a cue from the anti-racist movements of the past and find ways of linking our critique of racism with our critique of capitalism, so that no one can ever be called “surplus” again.

Unquestionably, Pantaleo should be held accountable for murdering Garner. But the same standard of justice should be brought to bear on the economic system that leaves people unemployed due to debilitating asthma, that forces them to peddle cigarettes on the street to make a living. It is this system that should be charged as an accessory to murder, for leaving Garner helpless against a killer in uniform.