Death by the State

Sitting leisurely in my apartment yesterday evening, I was stirred by the vibration of a NYTs alert, flashing on my phone’s screen: “Eric Garner Case Is Settled by New York City for $5.9 Million.” A year ago, Eric Garner was interrogated for selling single cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island. Attempting to subdue Garner in the course of an arrest, officer Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal chokehold that resulted in Garner’s death. His fateful last words, “I can’t breathe,” were captured on video and motivated protests across the country. Four hundred years after its publication, Shylock’s alienated ending in The Merchant of Venice provokes a compelling stream of analysis. 

By some interpretations, Shylock’s case against Antonio is definitively militant and malicious; still, I see his insistent exaction of Antonio’s bond — “a pound of flesh, to be by him cut off/Nearest the merchants heart” (4.1. 241-2) — as his only recourse for action against the extreme anti-Semitism that denigrates his humanity throughout the play. Shylock is a sympathetic and tragic character, his position one of social death, robbed of “Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!” (2.8. 17).

Seeking their own retribution for wrongs incurred, Garner’s family appealed for $75 million in damages — $5.9 million later, in lieu of a burdensome lawsuit, the wrongful death case is settled. “Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back,” said the comptroller who negotiated the agreement, Scott M. Stringer. “But it is our way of creating balance,” he added, “and giving a family a certain closure.” Not yet satisfied, Rev. Al Sharpton asserted, “This is not about getting money. This is about justice.”

National news coverage and displays of public agitation amplified the Garner family’s claim against New York City and pressured the police department, at least ostensibly, to take seriously complaints of racist stereotyping and their disproportionate affects across the criminal justice system. In these instances of potential public volatility, heightened scrutiny is applied to ensure the appropriate execution of the law. Embedded in a legal network designed to support a Venetian cosmopolitanism character, Shylock’s claim is strengthened by similar forces: “If you deny it, let the danger light/ Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!” he threatens the Duke in open court (4.1. 39-40). Both cases are exceptional — rarely is a challenge to the primacy of the ruling order successfully mounted, especially by those who stand outside it as both Garner and Shylock do.

The quality of justice provided by the law was in both cases consequently distorted. In December, the grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo, despite video footage and an autopsy report that identified Garner’s death as a homicide. Shylock stands similarly wronged. Per force of technicalities in the judicial code— note its racist quality, protecting “Christian” from “alien”— Shylock is stripped of his wealth and forced to abandon his Jewish faith, further fating him to social death by denying him the contents of his humanity (4.1. 323, 364). The law, incepted to secure justice for the wronged parties, instead confirms the dominion of established authority.

Official rules legitimize prejudice. Independent of the intended reception, both Shylock’s dehumanized ending and the eerie echo of Garner’s “I can’t breathe” repeated in video and protest pressure more careful attention toward inequality. Though separating by centuries and victim to different forces, both are dead by the hands of the state.