PETER BEINARTDEC 4 2014, 10:08 AM ET
Imagine that Eric Garner had been white. Imagine that he’d been living in Idaho. Imagine that the law-enforcement officers who killed him had been federal agents.
His death would be a Tea Party crusade.
Think about it. The police hassled Garner because he had a history of selling untaxed cigarettes. It’s the kind of big-government intrusion that drives Tea Partiers nuts. One of the events that helped launch the Tea Party, in fact, came in January 2009, when activists from Young Americans for Liberty donned American Indian garb to protest the soda taxes proposed by then-New York Governor David Patterson.
Garner responded to being hassled with a statement of “don’t tread on me” anti-government defiance: “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
A tussle ensued. The police put Garner in a chokehold, and he died.
The Garner case bears some resemblance to that of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who this spring prevented Bureau of Land Management agents from impounding his cattle after he refused to pay government grazing fees. Like Garner, Bundy was engaged in a form of commerce he believed the government should not tax. Like Garner, Bundy resisted law enforcement’s efforts to punish him for it. For many conservatives, this made Bundy a hero and the government that sought to penalize him a tyranny. Right-wing activists, including some Republican legislators, flocked to Bundy’s ranch as he stared down federal agents, and Nevada Senator Dean Heller dubbed these vigilantes “patriots.” “At the heart of this issue,” declared Fox’s Sean Hannity, is “my belief that our government is simply out of control.” Ted Cruz called the Bundy affair “the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on” in which “we have seen our constitutional liberties eroded.”
To imagine how Fox News would be reacting right now had Garner been white, rural, and facing the feds, you need only imagine how it would have reacted had a BLM agent shot Bundy dead.
But Fox and the rest of the pro-Tea Party right aren’t reacting that way. Yes, some conservative pundits—noting the video that shows Garner being choked to death—have condemned the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed him. Rand Paul has denounced the high cigarette taxes that Garner flouted.
Overall, however, conservatives have responded to the Garner case with a yawn. At 8 p.m. Wednesday night, hours after the decision had been announced, at a time when the Garner case dominated the websites of MSNBC and CNN, the top story on FoxNews.com was about Texas suing President Obama over immigration. (Later on that evening, FoxNews.com made its top story, you guessed it, Benghazi. As of Thursday morning, the Garner decision leads the site.) There was virtually nothing about the grand-jury decision on the websites of National Review or The Weekly Standard. (Since this piece was written, National Review has posted some prominent coverage.) Sarah Palin did not post anything about it on her Facebook page. For its part, TeaParty.org posted 14 articles to its Facebook page between 8 and 10 p.m. Many of them discussed Obama’s immigration action; some concerned the violence in Ferguson; one was about the empty seats at Hillary Clinton’s Georgetown speech. None mentioned Eric Garner.
One prominent conservative who did mention the case was Charles Krauthammer, who called the grand jury’s decision “incomprehensible” but slammed President Obama’s response for “making the implication … that it was about race.” (Obama said, “This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law.”)
But the right’s largely indifferent response illustrates just how much the Garner case really is about race. Had Eric Garner been a rural white man with a cowboy hat killed by federal agents, instead of a large black man choked to death by the NYPD, his face would be on a Ted Cruz for President poster by now.