Point/Counterpoint: Rand Paul, Death, and Taxes


Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has been criticized by progressive commentators over the past weeks for his remarks on the Eric Garner case, who was choked to death by police in New York City after having resisted their harassment.  Paul’s comment noted that the situation between Garner and police was enabled by New York’s black market in legal cigarettes.  After stating that the video of the event was horrifying, Paul said:

Obviously, the individual circumstances are important, but I think it is also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that [drove] cigarettes underground by making them so expensive.

John Stewart’s response was emblematic of the progressive outcry.  “What the f*ck are you talking about?” he asked rhetorically on his Daily Show.  He called the senator’s remarks “anti-tax dogma” and asked “Won’t anyone admit this is symptomatic of a larger issue?”  Stewart placed Paul’s remarks at the end of a segment featuring people who “continue to blame this death on anything but the injustices of a flawed system.”  It certainly does seem odd to talk about taxes in lieu of racism and police brutality.  But Stewart only included the first half of Paul’s remarks – the half that is reproduced above.  He stopped the tape early.  Paul’s comments continued:

But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’  And for someone to die over breaking that law… there really is no excuse for it.

It is hard to see Paul here as “blaming cigarette taxes” for the death of Eric Garner, as has been claimed by Stewart and others.  He is blaming the state’s violent policing.  Paul has been a consistent critic of how the Drug War has interacted with our criminal justice system to create hardships for black America.  It is secondary that the excuse for this instance of violent policing was an illicit market created by taxation specifically – regressive and onerous though it may be.  His comments, as stated rather than as featured in truncated form by Stewart and others, were never about “cigarette taxes” in a vacuum but as the smaller portion of a two-pronged argument. The bulk of that argument is formed by the second aspect he talked about:  “…arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.”

Paul’s voice on this issue is not at all the most important one.  The heart of this issue is racism, and progressives are right to feel that we need to focus on keeping that fact at the forefront.  The most important voices are from the people that are waging that battle. And despite the fact that Paul’s comments have been grossly misrepresented by people like Stewart, I do think that Paul should have addressed racism explicitly.  He is willing to do it when talking about criminal justice reform, so I am unsure why he did not in this case.

But racist policing will not disappear overnight.  The point of Paul’s remarks is that we can do something about it in the meantime.  The police are given a massive space of discretion in how to handle resisting arrest.  As long as that space remains intact, and as long as laws continue to create an adversarial relationship between black communities and white police, there will be more deaths of black Americans at the hands of white police.  So what can we do in the meantime?  There are two ways to interpret Paul’s comments.  The first is to remove some of those laws that throw police and citizens into conflict – yes, laws such as egregious cigarette taxes.  The second and more to the point is to remove or constrict the space of discretion surrounding resisting arrest.  Paul basically said this:  “Why did we give police the power to kill someone over selling a legal product?”  The power to arrest is the power to kill if one resists the arrest.  What reason is there to initiate violence in a nonviolent situation?  Why do we allow police to use violence in arrest of people who have committed no violent crime?  So what if they run away!  They are humans and are frightened.  Send them a goddamn citation in the mail.

So, Mr. Stewart, I suggest asking your staffers for the full clip.  Senator Paul was talking about a “flawed system.”  We can’t rid people’s hearts of darkness through law.  But we can remove or constrict the space in which we give that darkness power.