Yesterday’s news that there would be no indictment in the Eric Garner case touched off a series of protests – in New York City and communities nationwide – but the story is not over. As Rachel reported last night, Attorney General Eric Holder announced late yesterday that a federal investigation will examine the incident, as well.
And while that legal process unfolds, the public conversation will also continue, with much of the country asking important questions about race, criminal justice, and the degree to which some Americans are treated unfairly by law enforcement.
Some of these questions, however, will have more merit than others. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, appeared on msnbc’s “Hardball” last night and talked with Chris Matthews about the Garner incident. The senator said:
“Well, you know, I think it’s hard not to watch that video of him saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ and not be horrified by it. But I think there’s something bigger than just the individual circumstances.“Obviously, the individual circumstances are important. But I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes. So they’ve driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But them some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘Hey, we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’“And for someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.”
So, the senator’s takeaway from the Garner tragedy is that cigarette taxes led to this young man’s death.
For Rand Paul, we’re apparently having the wrong conversation – this is an opportunity to tout the benefits of the senator’s libertarian ideals, and the notion that there would be fewer deaths tied to law enforcement if only there were fewer laws to enforce.
Reality, however, points in a different direction. As Danny Vinik noted, Eric Garner didn’t die because of cigarette taxes. He died “because a cop put him in a chokehold, in violation of NYPD rules, and held his head against ground.”
What’s more, let’s not forget that the Kentucky Republican also reflected on developments in Ferguson last week, writing an op-ed in Time making a similar argument: the Michael Brown killing is should be blamed on “politicians,” the “war on drugs,” and a “culture of violence.”
Towards the end, Paul added:
I have no intention to scold, but escaping the poverty and crime trap will require more than just criminal justice reform. Escaping the poverty trap will require all of us to relearn that not only are we our brother’s keeper, we are our own keeper. While a hand-up can be part of the plan, if the plan doesn’t include the self-discovery of education, work, and the self-esteem that comes with work, the cycle of poverty will continue.
In other words, in the wake of a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed teenager, the senator took the opportunity to argue that struggling Americans should escape poverty in part through “self-discovery.”
Remember, Rand Paul is absolutely convinced that he has a unique opportunity to bring minority voters into the Republican Party.