David Greene sees eerie similarities between George Orwell’s 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant” and the events of today. What were the police officers thinking when they took a fatal shot? What was the police officer thinking when he subdued Eric Garner with a lethal chokehold?

 

Greene’s post was prompted by a column written by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times. Dwyer had a printout of Orwell’s essay. He fell into a chance conversation about Eric Garner’s death with a man sitting next to him on the subway, who was familiar with the essay:

 

Mr. Harris’s recollection of the essay was sound: It was written by a former British police officer in lower Burma who was overseeing a town where a bull elephant broke free and wreaked havoc. The townspeople want the officer to do something about it. He shoots the elephant.

 

“Who was the writer?” Mr. Harris said, peering down. “George Orwell, of course. It’s a good analogy.”

 

Born in Harlem, Mr. Harris, 57, “an American of African descent,” said he had repeatedly watched the video of Mr. Garner, face pressed into the sidewalk, calling out that he could not breathe.

 

“Every time I look at it, see him on the ground, I —” Mr. Harris put a hand on his own chest — “I have a hard time breathing myself. I try to read his lips.”

 

No other officers intervened. The ambulance team that responded provided virtually no care to Mr. Garner as he appeared to be slipping out of consciousness.

 

“He’s a human being,” Mr. Harris said. “No one’s doing anything for him. It’s clear-cut. I don’t think the cop set out to murder him. But it’s not manslaughter? It’s not negligence?….”

 

Putting the entire discussion on the heads of police officers made little sense to him. Besides his job as a caretaker for a house, Mr. Harris said he works as a “freelance painter” and anything else he can pick up. “How are you going to feel as a man if you can’t pay the rent?” he said. “If Eric Garner had a real job, he wouldn’t have been on the street selling cigarettes. Poverty makes us angry. Racism and poverty together, it’s explosive.”