Right-Wing Media’s Painful Pivot From Demonizing Mike Brown to Giving Eric Garner a Moral Pass

Right-Wing Media’s Painful Pivot From Demonizing Mike Brown to Giving Eric Garner a Moral Pass

Right-Wing Media’s Painful Pivot From Demonizing Mike Brown to Giving Eric Garner a Moral Pass

How to bury two dead black men in the “reverse racism” narrative.


The right-wing media are confused. After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, they felt the rush of vindication and could finally voice their full-throated disgust at black “thugs” like, in their eyes, Brown and the Ferguson protesters. But within hours after a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the same pundits and pols—shocked at video showing Garner repeatedly pleading for his life—had to make an arthritic 180-degree turn to give Garner and the “I can’t breathe” demonstrators a moral pass. That hurt.

Of course, there are major differences in the Garner and Brown cases—in the deadly weapon used, the men’s alleged crimes, the tone of the demonstrations and, in the Garner case, the presence of videotape. For the right highlighting the differences is the easy part. The hard part is, first, to ignore the similarities—white cops killing unarmed black males, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, armed with only a toy pellet gun. And, second, to maintain the all-important narrative that liberals are reverse racists for unfairly charging conservatives with racism.

The pain of pivoting from “Mike Brown, bad” to “Eric Garner, acceptable” has perhaps been most evident in Joe Scarborough, whose Morning Joe show is as much about the struggle within his own psyche as about real-world events.

On Monday, before the Staten Island grand jury decision came down on Wednesday, Scarborough was exploding at Mike Brown and the whole “Hands up, don’t shoot” crowd. Scarborough insisted (video below) that the left had made Brown a “hero,” and he likened the slain teenager not to Trayvon Martin but to George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin in 2012 and who Scarborough called a “thug.” (“No one has said Mike Brown was a hero,” NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted in response. “What we have said was that we don’t give the death penalty to shoplifting teens.”)

The next day, Scarborough unleashed more of his considerable fury at the whole Ferguson movement and at anyone who dared to make the “Hands up” gesture, as three Democratic congresspersons did on the floor of the House and five Rams players did on the football field. They lie, said Joe, all of them!

But these players can suggest that the St. Louis cops shoot black youth with their hands up in the air? That’s cool with the NFL? That’s cool with the St. Louis Rams? That’s cool to suggest that St. Louis police officers in the town, probably a lot who go to the games and watch the games and are fans, the St. Louis Rams think it’s cool for them to suggest that St. Louis cops shoot young black men who had their hands up in the air when we know that was a lie? It’s a lie. And what was that gesture on Capitol Hill? More people like going, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth or not, I’ll suggest cops shoot people with their hands up in the air. What is wrong with this country?!

Co-hosts Mika Brzezinski sat by silently and Willie Geist chimed in, “These are elected officials”; only Thomas Roberts had the nerve to later say that, um, the gesture is not a “lie.” It “might be more symbolic,” he said, of the “deadly force” used by white cops on black people all over the country.

But for Joe, “this Ram thing” was “the final straw,” he said. “I have sat here quietly and listened to BS being spewed all over this network and all over other networks. I cannot take it anymore!” (My emphasis on his self-perception.)

After the announcement of Pantaleo’s non-indictment, however, Scarborough was positively grateful to have one of those presumed MSNBC spewers, the Rev. Al Sharpton, on the show to, in essence, vouch that Joe was not one of the bad guys on race.

“I don’t want to give people watching vertigo,” Joe said. “Obviously, [Sharpton and I] agreed on Trayvon. We talked a lot about that. We disagreed on Ferguson…. We disagree, but even when we disagree, we do it respectfully. We agree more than we disagree.”

The Reverend agreed to that. And in turn, Joe declared that Sharpton, who’s been organizing around Ferguson and Garner, “does not go out looking for these people—it’s not like a trial lawyer. The families call him and ask him to come.”

To his credit, Joe is at least struggling with these issues. Much of the rest of the right wing is more kneejerk. As a TPM headline put it, “The Right Channels Its Outrage In Eric Garner Case Toward The ‘Nanny State.’ ” Garner, whom the cops were trying to arrest for selling single, untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies,” may or may not have been the victim of excessive police force, goes this argument, but he was definitely the victim of big government taxing us to death. “Whereas many conservatives said Wilson was simply doing his job, some on Wednesday said Pantaleo was enforcing a punitive big government policy,” TPM’s Tom Kludt wrote. “And while Brown was nothing more than a ‘thug,’ Garner was the victim of the dreaded nanny state.”

Fox News analyst and former judge Andrew Napolitano, Senator Rand Paul and radio talk show host Dana Loesch are among those using versions of this argument, with Loesch tweeting: “The results of big government, #NannyStateEnforcement, and @MikeBloomberg ’s excise tax—> #EricGarner. Appalling and obscene.”

As much as some conservatives also seem authentically appalled at the sight of Garner being killed while gasping eleven times that he couldn’t breathe, many appear to be chomping at the bit to somehow, anyhow, turn this against Obama and the Dems.

In addition to attacking the nannies, there’s the old blame-the-victim tactic, pushed most notably Representative Peter King (R-NY). He said of Garner on Fox yesterday, “If he had not been obese, if he had not had diabetes, if he had not asthma, this probably would not have happened.” He also cited Garner’s many previous arrests, for likewise small infringements of the law.

As in the Mike Brown case, the most important thing for the right is to inoculate the police (and thus themselves) from charges of racism. Yesterday, Fox’s Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum had Kevin Jackson, the black author of Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, on their morning show, where he said of Garner’s death, “to make this racial is patently ridiculous.” The real profiling problem in the black community, he added, was the “profiling of police. Has anyone talked about that level of profiling?”

By last night, Megyn Kelly was all over her black guests to prove—with hard evidence—that Garner’s death had anything whatsoever to with race.

And if any of those arguments fail to convince the public that race matters, there’s still the distraction method: if you talk enough about blacks killing blacks you can magically make the issue of cops killing blacks disappear. Many are reacting with that default canard to President Obama’s and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s calls for more police training. Sure, fine, train the police, Rudy Giuliani told Fox & Friends, “but you should spend 90 percent of your time talking about the way they’re actually probably going to get killed, which is by another black. To avoid that fact, I think is racist.”

And so it goes.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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