Smoking is healthier than fascism. The aphorism’s latest affirmation comes via the death of a seller of cigarette singles at the hands of New York City police officers.
“Are you serious?” Eric Garner asked the approaching New York City cops. “I didn’t do nothing. What did I do?” No good deed goes unpunished. He apparently captured the attention of the police last week by breaking up a fight. But he appeared on their radar long before that.
“In a city where the authorities are increasingly focused on stamping out petty offenses as a way of heading off larger ones,” the New York Times reported this week, “the local officers had tangled with Mr. Garner time and time again, arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes at a price far below what local deli owners could offer.”
In other words, Garner saved customers money. Selling loosies, heretofore not in any ethical sense a criminal let alone a capital offense, strangely called for the convergence of a half-dozen or so officers, who, presumably, had better things to do than wrestle an asthmatic father to the ground, put him in a chokehold, and apply pressure to the downed-and-almost-out, cuffed arrestee.
One can understand the cigarette salesman’s initial confusion at the you’re-under-arrest command. The police’s inaction at the repeated pleas “I can’t breathe” appears less comprehendible. If only they could have been as laissez-faire in their approach to Mr. Garner’s entrepreneurial pursuits as they were to his health, then everybody—cops, customers, capitalist—would have been better off.
Al Sharpton wants to involve the feds. Too late. The FDA, of which the NYPD now apparently serves as an auxiliary enforcement branch, warns in the ALL-CAPS style of fanatics on its website: “Do NOT sell single cigarettes, also called ‘loosies.’” I offer a similar question to the bureaucrats as the decedent did to the arresting officers: Why?
A credible answer comes via the tax code of New York. Taking $4.35 cents a pack, New York ranks first among the states in sponging off smokers. The shopkeepers interviewed by the Times didn’t seem bothered by Mr. Garner. Clearly, Mr. Garner proved bad for the business of bureaucracy.
Policemen make great crime fighters. They make lousy tax collectors.
The law enforcers deserve criticism; the lawmakers, more so. There may be something criminal in the state profiting more off a product than its producers do. But there’s nothing inherently sinful in selling a single cigarette versus selling a pack of them. The fixation on the cops in the video misses the miscues of the elected officials making illegal what’s not immoral and furthermore demanded by the market. Before the policemen messed up, the politicians did.
One way to increase disrespect for law enforcement is to pass petty laws and allow bureaucrats to govern without the consent of the governed. Various Empire State politicians have attempted to codify prohibitions on children playing football, grocers selling supersized sodas, and internet sites posting pseudonymous comments, a government provocation certain if enacted to push several loyal readers of this website to put down their laptops and pick up their pitchforks.
A few cops in Staten Island screwed up for all of the YouTube universe to see. The majority of the state’s legislators put them in the position to enforce petty, trifling statutes, i.e., to hassle people not hassling others. They get away with murder.
“Every time you see me you mess with me,” Eric Garner said in his last remaining breaths. “I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone.”
He speaks no more but he speaks for many.