ERIC GARNER, ALTON STERLING AND CONTROLLING BLACK BODIES IN THE AMERICAS (a text in three parts)
“Detroit’s black day laborers gathered at an informal outdoor labor market on the city’s periphery, known to local whites as the ‘slave market.’ The large ‘open air mart’ thrived between the 1940’s and 1960’s on Eight Mile Road…” (Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis)
Eric Garner (part I)
In 1770 the Municipal government of the Louisiana Territory then under Spanish rule stated it was permissible in the Territory for the Europeans to trade tobacco for African slaves. On July 17, 2014, in the formerly-liberal now neoliberal bastion of New York City, money capital of the overdeveloped world, and once the prime destination for Blacks leaving the Reconstruction South, there was no law permitting a black man to sell individual tobacco cigarettes on the street, indeed, based on city legislation, it was strategically inconceivable and legally impermissible for a black man to do so, and it was an activity for which Eric Garner would be killed given that the police department since the mid-1990’s was fixated on what it called quality of life in the city so when a group of African-American and Latino men had the idea of selling cigarettes that they would buy from nearby states or the Indian reservation at prices cheaper than those of New York City in order to sell on the streets, especially to people similar to themselves, who, in this case, would be people going to the welfare office nearby, and for whom, the one cigarette those customers purchased might ironically indeed have been a momentary improvement in their quality of life, both alleviating stress and bought at a cheaper price, well, the New York City police did not see it that way and after the call they received from the apartment manager who, adding his complaint to the hundreds that had been made regarding this particular area because he felt pushed to his limit with the group outside his Staten Island apartment building whom he described to police as selling cigarettes and drugs on the streets, surely the mention of the word drugs would arouse the attention of the police who were familiar with this particular group and specifically with one 43-year-old man named Eric Garner, impossible to miss at 6’2”, 395 pounds, a husband and father of six who had already been arrested twice the same year because his selling of cigarette loosies was not in accordance with state tax law.
The fact that Mr. Garner was known for buying ice cream for children in the area was inconsequential as was his history for being a type of referee amongst the group of men with whom he hung around who would at times get into their own brawls, and the reality of Mr. Garner, a husband and father of six, working in a trade that he had made part of his livelihood was likewise irrelevant, but the fact that Eric Garner was himself breaking up a fight between his buds that day proved fatal because the plain clothes cops focused on him and this time it was Garner they wanted to arrest for selling cigarettes, and despite the big man asking that they not touch him, they proceeded in any case, with one particular cop grabbing the huge Garner, who suffered from various health conditions, by the neck and tackling him down to the ground in a chokehold, pressing his face to the cement, handcuffing him, and leaving him on the ground where Garner made his now famous pleas stating, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” eleven times, all of which were recorded on the phone camera of one of Eric Garner’s friends, but the cops ignored his pleas because somewhere in their training or due to the dozens of arrests they had made at this same spot or most likely because quality of life mandates did not include the life of someone who looked like Mr. Garner and who worked in the informal economy, they concluded that his pleas for help were fake which might be the reason that instead of Eric Garner receiving a professional group of medical personnel to attend him, he was sent what appeared to be five fake medics one of whom walked around carrying the oxygen that was never administered to the patient who suffered from acute asthma and who died after the cops succeeded in being the catalyst for Eric Garner’s cardiac arrest.
The Americas (part II)
The tragedy of Alton Sterling was to have been born in a state that historically more than one European country had fought to the death for – not only death amongst Europeans – the deaths of the original Native American inhabitants of the land and the African slaves imported as property. Louisiana, as the former center of colonial slave trading in the United States, was contested ground not unlike my birthplace of California. They are both states in which the presence of more than one colonial European power resulted in a fight for geographical dominance and economic and military control. One of the most pernicious and exploitive forms of domination was European ownership of black persons transported from Africa as slaves. Although the Portuguese initially had exclusive access to the coast of Africa and thus the exportation of our ancestors according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494[i], the French, Spanish, and English would feud amongst themselves and with the Portuguese in order to gather the labor they needed to found and exploit the new lands they sought to conquer in the Americas. European enslavers attempted to gain dominion over enslaved Africans by branding them according to their place of origin, this being important since enslavers placed a preference on peoples imported directly from Africa. The Europeans sought to curb the Africans’ exposure to revolutionary ideas which they deemed more prevalent in the Caribbean holding islands than amongst Africans imported directly from the continent.[ii] While the Europeans placed a premium on the skin brandings they put on Africans as property, they, for the most part, ignored the scarification the enslaved had put on themselves to indicate their particular African cultural identity.
The English-speaking slave traders kept rather meticulous records of sales of the enslaved, the Spanish are noted for having kept some; yet, the French kept very little data regarding sales of African slaves.[iii] Their memorandums may have been scant, but the French administered the largest slave population of any colony in the territory of Saint Domingue which we now call Haiti. The French domination of Saint Domingue lasted from 1659 until the years of the slave revolt ending in 1804. Saint Domingue had a population of 800,000 slaves toiling in the cultivation and production of tobacco, cotton, and coffee as well as the monumental sugar trade that supplied 40% of that product to Europe. With more than a thousand shipping vessels, over 20,000 French sailors, and more than 500 ships in its port at any one time, the Europeans considered Saint Domingue the “Pearl of the Antilles.” Always wary of a coup d’état, the French would avoid importing slaves to Louisiana during the years 1729 to 1731 because the enslaved were rebelling in the Territory during those years. And later Charles IV would block importation of slaves from the French Antilles to Saint Domingue as the Haitian revolution got under way in 1791.[iv]
The presence of the huge population of French sailors in Saint Domingue could not have been more horrific for women. “Colonized women were frequently positioned in the colonies and under slavery as concubines, mistresses, or sexual servants.”[v] The scholar Kempadoo describes in her writings how militarized masculinity demands heterosexual sex on a regular basis. When the French sailors of Saint Domingue did not resort to having sex presumably amongst themselves, they would rape the females from the Native or African populations. How else to explain the emergence of Creole slaves — a new category of enslaved that was “specifically barred from…commerce” for importation to Louisiana as early as 1777[vi], again due to the preference for slaves imported directly from Africa whom the Europeans hoped to manipulate. Black women were not only dehumanized by the Europeans placing them in the role of having to fulfill the sexual desires of the sailors. Throughout the Americas, they were considered breeders whose “wombs were incorporated into plantation economies to increase the size of the slave population.”[vii]
The English had a monopoly on the barbarity of the slave trade by the 18th century, having surpassed both the French and the Spanish in the trafficking of human lives. After the slave revolt in Saint Domingue during the years of 1791-1803, the Europeans moved some sugar production to Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase, in which this territory was transferred from French to Spanish, back to French, and finally to U.S. hands, was a manifestation of how the United States, a former colony itself, had now gained the ability to recolonize. The incorporation of the territory which contained the largest slave market caused political anxiety amongst the political power brokers in the North. Their concerns were appeased by designating black slaves as 3/5 of a person in the U.S. Constitution, thus avoiding having the South gain excessive electoral representation.
Another colonial power that formerly controlled black lives in Louisiana was Spain. And how did the Spanish maneuver to restrain their African populations? The Spanish designated Cartagena in present-day Colombia, as the former slave trading center of Spanish America; thus, it was the sister city of Anglo-American New Orleans. While Anglo-American slavery was noted for being brutal and French slavery in Saint Domingue was so deadly the enslaved lived just a few years, the Spanish in their largest slave market of Cartagena are noted for having “difficulties with transportation, (an) unimaginative government, (and) powerful and myopic vested interests”[viii] all of which affected the degrees of mercilessness the Catholic Jesuits, landowners, and mine owners could impose on their African slaves. France and Spain were both Catholic countries, and the Catholic church took the position that slavery was a contract and that the slave was a human being with family rights.[ix] While this may have been one of many laws on the books dating back as far as 1348 in Castilian legislation, it would be difficult to enforce in Colombia because of the shortage of priests to implement it. And its application was uneven in other geographical locations of the huge Spanish American empire. Despite their Catholicism, the French were barbaric slave owners in Saint Domingue known for working slaves to death in just a few years. If preservation of the family unit is used as an indication of respecting the humanity of African slaves, we know that in Anglo-American slavery separation of family members was the norm. Colombia’s rate of nuclear family units amongst slaves was anywhere from 37-60% depending on the region. Peru and Brazil, both Catholic countries, discouraged family units amongst slaves where only 10% lived in nuclear families. The Bahamas and Jamaica, on the other hand, are noted for having 54 and 70% of slaves respectively living in nuclear family units.[x]
Other characteristics regarding the lives of the Africans enslaved in the region now called Colombia was a life expectancy of 30 years, a mortality rate of 50%, with women giving birth to an average of 5 kids, and having, statistically, more than half die at an early age. The ratio of men to women in the late 1700’s in the Colombia region was 109:100, which contrasts markedly with South Carolina at 180-250:100. A particularity of Colombian slavery is the notion that the enslaved did not have to toil for the enslavers on Sundays and Catholic holidays.[xi] This fact is important because it would allow for increased rates of manumission given that African slaves toiling in the gold mines in areas like Choco, or laboring on farms could work on Sundays and keep the profits from their work for themselves. Retaining the profits of their labor should have allowed for increased rates of manumission given that the enslaved would be able to then purchase themselves or other family members. Yet records indicate that the Spanish rarely disclosed the laws regarding manumission and even when the enslaved were aware of the laws, some masters refused to grant freedom. Thus, records for the late 1700’s show that the region of Cali granted only 87 manumissions and Buenaventura, 7. The goldmining region of Choco is distinct in having a 75% manumission rate, but this is also connected to the depletion of the gold mines in that area.[xii] By 1785 the colonial powers in Colombia, by way of their dominion over and regulation of the lives of African slaves, had depleted the gold mines of Choco, although slavery would not officially end across the country until 1851.
Alton Sterling (part III)
“In a setting black women referred to as a slave market at Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street (Chicago), they (black female domestic workers) haggled daily for work, just as their counterparts did in New York’s ‘Bronx Slave Market.’” (Christopher Robert Reed, The Depression Comes to the South Side)
Six years, take it or leave it, six years of being an acquaintance to the owner of the Triple S Food Mart who said that Alton Sterling never got into any fights and was popular amongst the store’s shoppers who referred to him as the CD Man, with his table of cd’s and dvd’s in a cardboard box on his table propped up outside the store while playing music for his customers to both sample and lighten the load of their workday, known for extending credit to his customers who might pay him a portion of the price of the cd and return later to pay him the rest. Alton Sterling with his cd business still extant after Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and the Virgin Megastores’ closure in Europe and America in 2009; yet, Sterling, still the CD Man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016, despite the digital age of downloads and apps, a black man once again caught up in the whirlwind of 21st -century global capital – a tempest which at its worst functions like the bighead carp eating algae and detritus at the bottom of the Mississippi River, looking for consumables in an era when capital had deemed the music cd dead and America had opined the black working class of no regard and the black underclass, irrelevant. Here was this one African American male, father of five, selling cds in the open air in a country that had considered it more acceptable that he sell himself for labor, a country where blacks have ironically functioned as both profit and profit makers, and where independent black enterprise has always been suspect and has not been given support causing blacks to be on a tempestuous tour of the country for several decades now looking for living arrangements starting from the South after Emancipation and fleeing to the North, Midwest, and out West, currently regions subject to gentrification, especially in the major cities, where wealthy international elites buy condos and lofts in formerly abandoned downtowns presently undergoing transformation and forcing blacks, browns, working people, and the elderly to compete in their old neighborhoods with those same absentee-owner/renter elites and with middle class American whites trying desperately not to feel the crunch.
The CD Man, 37 years old, a registered sex offender, which no mom, family, or community can condone, had previously been arrested for carrying a gun and being in possession of marijuana in Louisiana which is not Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State, nor D.C. where marijuana is now legal, and sentenced to five years; thus, he had done time, and now engaged in his business, sole proprietor, his presence contradicting the myth that blacks are more tolerable solo than in a group – a group that can incite anxiety amongst fearful whites like the hundreds of Haitians languishing today in Tijuana having fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, worked in Brazil, and due to that country’s economic downturn, migrated, some on foot to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they now sit, wait, and dream the dream of entering a country which centuries ago deemed black migration en masse to the U.S. useless and which now perceives the individual black person, especially male, as a threat. And that fateful call of the homeless man, perhaps upset that Sterling would not give him money, so he calls the police to tell them that Sterling is carrying a gun in open-carry Baton Rouge, and the two cops respond to that call ready to snuff the life out of this black man as they straddle and tackle him to the ground, during which shots are fired, and the cops emerge alive. Alton Sterling dies to his kids, dies to their moms, dies to his customers, dies to the homeless man who used his phone to call the police, dies to the bystanders who used their phones to record the killing, dies to open-carry Baton Rouge, dies to America’s former largest slave market of Louisiana, dies to the open arms of the jails and prisons which like the rest of America is confounded about what to teach, which services to provide, job opportunities to avail, housing to rent and sell, what the future looks like for working and underclass black America, a thorn in its side since the days of freedom.
[ii] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”
[iii] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”
[iv] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”
[vi] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”
[vii] Kamala Kempadoo, “Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Transnational Feminist Perspectives”
[ix] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”
[x] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”
[xi] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”
[xii] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”
Baker, Al, David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller. “Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death.” New York Times 13 June 2015.
Berlinger, Joshua, Nick Valencia, and Steve Almasy. “Alton Sterling Shooting: Homeless Man Made 911 Call, Source Says.” CNN 8 July 2016.
Chandler, David. “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia.” Latin American Research Review 2 (1981): 107-131. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/2503127.
Ingersoll, Thomas. “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community.” Louisiana Historical Association 37 (Spring 1996): 133-161. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233285.
Kempadoo, Kamala. “Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Transnational Feminist Perspectives.” Indiana University Press 2 (Spring 2001): 28-51. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/40338451.