In a moment that has become as sadly iconic as the hands up in the air from Ferguson, Eric Garner repeatedly screamed “I can’t breathe!” before he died at the hands of NY Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, as a viral video of his arrest captured images of the officer with his armed wrapped around Mr. Garner’s neck.
The question remains – why was Eric Garner strangled? Chokeholds are not only considered dangerous and potentially lethal, they are prohibited by the NY Police Department.
Once again, a man dies at the hands of a police officer, and this time it was a Staten Island Grand Jury who declined to not indict.
As the New York Times explains this morning, “It was never supposed to be a chokehold, the officer testified. It was a wrestling move.”
They note that the 29-year-old officer (one year older than Officer Wilson) led the jury through three different videos of the arrest.
The Times notes, “One video, widely seen on the Internet, seemed to show Officer Pantaleo using a chokehold — a move banned by the Police Department, but not explicitly against state law — to bring Mr. Garner down. The medical examiner’s office determined that the chokehold, as well as compression to the chest, caused Mr. Garner’s death, and ruled it a homicide.”
Officer Pantaleo acknowledged hearing Mr. Garner repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe” and claimed he was attempting to disengage. However, he also argued that his ability to speak meant he could in fact breathe.
Mr. Garner, a 350-pound man, was being arrested for the illegal sale of cigarettes. He first complained about harassment and then was physically resisting arrest by several officers.
However, the Times describes, “As the struggle continued, one of Officer Pantaleo’s arms moved around Mr. Garner’s neck. Officer Pantaleo told the grand jury that he became fearful as he found himself sandwiched between a much larger man and a storefront window.”
Through his lawyer, we learn that the officer “testified that the glass buckled while Garner was up against him and he was against the glass. He was concerned that both he and Garner would go through that glass.”
The Times writes, “On the video, the men toppled to the ground, but the arm around Mr. Garner’s neck did not appear to move. Officer Pantaleo told jurors he continued to hold on to Mr. Garner as he struggled to regain his balance, Mr. London said. He said he wanted to make sure that Mr. Garner was not injured by other officers rushing in, as well as to prevent Mr. Garner from possibly biting one of them.
“On the video, Mr. Garner, 43, can be heard saying that he could not breathe. Officer Pantaleo told the grand jurors he heard those pleas.”
“That’s why he attempted to get off as quick as he could,” Mr. London, his attorney, said. “He thought that once E.M.T. arrived, everything would be O.K.”
However, the Times notes, “This account does not seem to match what is seen on the video, with Officer Pantaleo holding firm and not appearing to hurry to get off Mr. Garner.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union director Donna Lieberman said, “The failure of the Staten Island Grand Jury to file an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: How will the NYPD hold the officers involved accountable for his death? And what will Commissioner Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind? Unless the Police Department aggressively deals with its culture of impunity and trains officers that they must simultaneously protect both safety and individual rights, officers will continue to believe that they can act without consequence.”
The NYCLU also called on lawmakers to swiftly pass the Right to Know Act, a pair of bills currently before the City Council which would require police officers to identify themselves formally to people they stop and, if there is no arrest or summons, provide a business card and require officers to obtain proof of consent before searching someone when there is no warrant or probable cause.
The ACLU notes, “This decision follows an appalling national pattern where police officers use excessive and sometimes fatal force against people of color and are frequently not held responsible.”
They argue, “There needs to be a shift in the culture of policing in America. A good start would be for our national leaders to come out strongly against excessive force and racial profiling.”
They add, “Eric Garner’s story is sadly all too common. Police officers disproportionately stop people because of their race or engage in aggressive enforcement of nonviolent infractions in communities of color.”
And they write, “We cannot ignore the systemic use of excessive force and discriminatory policing. Law enforcement often does not treat communities of color as equal partners in a shared, collaborative effort to ensure public safety.”
“It’s become ‘us’ versus ‘them’ where communities of color are often treated like the enemy,” the ACLU continues. “Trust between communities and law enforcement is deeply eroded. Police can no longer cast a broad blanket of suspicion over entire communities under the guise of preventing crime.”
On the other coast, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi wrote, “As San Francisco Public Defender, I am profoundly dismayed by a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to bring charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
“The facts in this case were not murky due to unreliable witnesses or subjective memories,” he stated. “The struggle that ended in Garner’s death was caught entirely on video. Officer Pantaleo, the subject of two previous civil suits, used a hold on Garner that was explicitly prohibited by NYPD’s own patrol guide. Garner, who had asthma, could be heard repeatedly telling officers he couldn’t breathe. The New York City Medical Examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide.
“A grand jury refusing to indict in such an evidence-heavy case would defy belief–if it didn’t happen so often,” Mr. Adachi continued. “It is less than two weeks since a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to bring charges against another white officer who shot another black man. Garner was one of four unarmed black men killed by police in the U.S. over a single month this past summer.
“It is rare for grand juries to return indictments against police officers, at least in part because local prosecutors rely upon local police to bring their cases. Perhaps it is time to bring in district attorneys from outside jurisdictions when a police officer is accused of a crime,” Jeff Adachi concluded. “Eric Garner’s death is not an isolated tragedy. Neither is Michael Brown’s. But together they have significantly eroded faith in the justice system.”
The reaction in New York was different from Ferguson. Protests broke out, with signs stating “I can’t Breathe,” but they were largely peaceful with about 30 arrests reported by 10 pm on Wednesday night.
The Times also notes, “Yet this was no Ferguson, where conflicting witness accounts obscured the circumstances of the confrontation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot him. This encounter was recorded at close range on a cellphone camera, the fact that kept many on Wednesday asking: How? Why?”
We have been talking about the interactions between the police and the black community for the past week and a half, and this type of decision, in this case much more defined, typifies why the black community is so distrustful of the system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting