Yesterday’s New York Times’ opinion page published an intelligent explication from two law students,” It begins with one pertinent case and one strong-minded victim who tried to change the rules: about the “legal rules that enable police violence.
ERIC GARNER was not the first American to be choked by the police, and he will not be the last, thanks to legal rules that prevent victims of police violence from asking federal courts to help stop deadly practices.
The 1983 case City of Los Angeles v. Lyons vividly illustrates the problem. That case also involved an African-American man choked by the police without provocation after he was stopped for a minor offense — a burned-out taillight. Unlike Mr. Garner, Adolph Lyons survived the chokehold. He then filed a federal lawsuit, asking the city to compensate him for his injuries. But he wanted more than just money. He also asked the court to prevent the Los Angeles Police Department from using chokeholds in the future. The trial court ordered the L.A.P.D. to stop using chokeholds unless an officer was threatened with death or serious injury, and to institute better training, reporting and record-keeping.
The Supreme Court overturned this order by one vote. The court explained that Mr. Lyons would have needed to prove that he personally was likely to be choked again in order for his lawsuit to be a vehicle for systemic reform. Without that, he could win compensation only for past injuries.
This is the legal standard when a plaintiff asks a federal court for an injunction — or a forward-looking legal order — in order to stop illegal practices that could harm him in the future.
Today’s Daily News opinion page presented an unusual historical perspective by Richard Greenwald, a professor of history and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College.
Professor Greenwald’s essay, “Will Eric Garner be our Triangle Fire?” teaches us once again how “Tragedy can trigger change.”
I’ve written about how the Triangle Shirt fire of 1911 affected people like my mother, and had an immense effect on New York City’s labor laws and building codes. Professor Greenwald suggests that Eric Garner’s awful death “might become this generation’s Triangle Moment, the tipping point, the great wake up.”