After all, you still have to go to work, so Galvin Harris boarded a train in Harlem on Thursday afternoon on his way to take care of a house in Brooklyn.
Still laden with distress over the events of the week, he sat next to a stranger — me — and glanced at the printout on my lap.
“Oh, Shooting an Elephant,” Harris said, calling out the title. “I read that for a college course.”
The essay was published in 1936. A friend suggested it could shed light on the death of Eric Garner this summer. Suspected of selling loose cigarettes, he refused to be arrested. He was brought to the ground by a police officer and pinned there with force that led to his death.
A grand jury on Staten Island just decided not to bring charges against the officer who had subdued Garner.
Harris’s recollection of the essay was sound: It was written by a former British police officer in lower Burma who is overseeing a town where a bull elephant breaks free and wreaks havoc. The townspeople want the officer to do something about it. He shoots the elephant.
“Who was the writer?” Harris said, peering down. “George Orwell, of course. It’s a good analogy.”
Born in Harlem, Harris, 57, “an American of African descent”, said he had repeatedly watched the video of 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 —” 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 Garner as he appeared to be slipping out of consciousness.
“He’s a human being,” 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?”
The circumstances of Garner’s death were captured on videotape, unlike the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where witnesses gave conflicting accounts of what led to his final, fatal encounter with a police officer.
Despite what seemed to be a more clear-cut situation in New York, protesters in the city did not replicate the destructive response in Ferguson on the first night after the grand jury did not bring charges.
“It’s not as turbulent here,” Harris said. “Missouri is a different set of black people. Much smaller police department, all white, over a black population. A lot of brothers here think they’re free.
“I understand the anger in Missouri, but not the reactive violence — especially tearing up where you live.”
Putting the entire discussion on the heads of police officers made little sense to him. Besides his job as a caretaker for a house, 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.”
Harris said he was riding in a car 27 years ago on the New Jersey Turnpike with his cousin and another man. They were pulled over for “weaving”, he said. “They held us there, asking us what we had on us. Went into pockets, and, yeah, they found stuff.” He served a short prison term in New Jersey for drug possession, a mark that follows him nearly three decades after the traffic stop on a turnpike where racial profiling was a routine practice.
“Racism is baked into things, like chocolate chips in a cookie,” Harris said.
He returned to the subject of Orwell’s essay, musing on a remembered theme — how an officer is on stage — that had echoes in the encounter on Staten Island, which began over a trivial offence. The confrontation flared to a point of no return.
“They didn’t want to look like fools,” Harris said. “People had cellphones. They had to perform.”
Orwell wrote that he did not want to shoot the elephant, but with throngs watching him, could not figure out a way not to as a sahib, a man of stature.
“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant,” he wrote. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.”
Coomi Kapoor’s column Inside Track will be back in January