Eric Garner’s Family Receives Small Measure of Justice, But Corrupt System Remains
“This case has rained violence upon every person of color even remotely involved.”
The New York Police Department fired the officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner on Monday, closing a five-year legal battle over an event that vitalized a movement to fight police brutality against minorities.
In July 2014, Eric Garner was violently wrestled to the ground by police in Staten Island for selling untaxed cigarettes – although it is unclear if he was doing this at the time of the attempted arrest. In a cell phone video that rapidly went viral, Daniel Pantaleo, the officer in question, can be seen squeezing his arm around Garner’s neck while Garner repeatedly pleads “I can’t breathe” until he goes unconscious.
Garner laid motionless and handcuffed on the sidewalk for several minutes before four emergency responders arrived to the scene, who then failed to provide him any form of emergency aid or promptly place him on a stretcher. He was pronounced dead in the hospital an hour later.
After being told that Garner had gone into cardiac arrest and might be dead, N.Y.P.D. Lieutenant Christopher Bannon replied: “Not a big deal. We were effecting a lawful arrest.”
An autopsy later revealed hemorrhaging to four layers of muscle and tissue in Eric Garner’s neck. The medical examiner said the injuries had been caused by the chokehold and compression, which led to a fatal round of asthma. N.Y.P.D. commissioner Bill Bratton also conceded that Pantaleo’s use of force appeared to be a prohibited chokehold, though he at times tried to walk back the chokehold admission.
A grand jury in Staten Island then decided to decline criminal charges against Pantaleo, igniting mass protests in New York City. Pantaleo worked office duty for the past five years, but reentered the news cycle this summer over a departmental trial which finally resulted in the loss of his job on Monday.
N.Y.P.D. Commissioner James P. O’Neill called the decision to fire Pantaleo “extremely difficult” while the officer’s union pledged to fight for an appeal.
“The unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own,” said Commissioner O’Neill. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer serve as a New York City police officer.”
What The Eric Garner Case Represents
Steve Núñez, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School who specializes in political violence and the history of racism in American society, spoke to Citizen Truth about his view of the Eric Garner case:
“Eric Garner gasped ‘I CAN’T BREATHE’ eleven times as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled him to death. When Trump Administration Attorney General William Barr dropped the federal case against Pantaleo, he strangled any semblance of legitimacy that the U.S. punishment system had left,” Núñez said.
Pantaleo had four substantiated allegations of abuse before choking Garner, including an abusive stop and frisk and an abusive vehicle stop and search, according to leaked documents provided to ThinkProgress. While the N.Y.C. Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended the harshest disciplinary action possible for what ThinkProgress called a “chronic history of abuse,” the N.Y.P.D. gave Pantaleo the weakest disciplinary action it could.
“In a system that boasts a 99% prosecutorial success rate in securing indictments in federal grand juries, it is truly astounding that less than 1% of officers who have killed someone since 2005 have been indicted on murder or manslaughter charges,” Núñez told Citizen Truth. “Eric Garner was strangled by Daniel Pantaleo but he was killed by the American unwillingness to enforce laws upon those we authorize to enforce our laws.”
As a veteran of the special forces, Núñez holds a unique perspective on structural racism in the United States. He perceives a myriad of interwoven policies designed to subjugate black people as responsible for the deaths of Garner and his daughter:
“At the end of 2017, Erica Garner-Snipes, Garner’s daughter, 27, slipped into a coma after a second heart attack caused by an asthma attack; from housing segregation to gentrification, food apartheid to lack of access to racialized medical care, she was killed by the interlocking systems designed to suffocate Black people.”
In addition to numerous other racial disparities in the American criminal justice system, African-Americans are 3.6 times more likely to experience force by police officers compared to whites, according to the Center for Policing Equity. A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that police killings are now a leading cause of death for young men, with roughly one in a thousand black men facing fatal police violence – a rate 2.5 times more likely than for white men.
Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi’s book I Can’t Breathe, an account of the justice system’s handling of the Eric Garner case, reveals a process built to prevent the indictment of bad cops.
Taibbi explains that instead of the standard, standing grand jury cases that hear multiple cases in one day, police-killing cases are often assembled in special grand juries that spend months on a single case. Taibbi argues the protective relationship prosecutors and police often share, as well as the lack of transparency regarding special grand juries’ decision-making processes, serve to shut out the public and keep police violence unaccountable.
Taibbi notes that in New York City, as well as in cases like Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, “activists suspected prosecutors were essentially putting on defense cases in these suspiciously long, secret tribunals. There was no way to know. In Ferguson, when a grand juror sued for the right to talk about the case in public, courts rejected the request.”
“Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the tragedy, alleges that N.Y.P.D. targeted, harassed, and arrested him constantly in retaliation for filming the violence which ultimately led to his conviction and 4-year prison sentence,” Núñez told Citizen Truth.
#FreeRamsey trended on Twitter after news broke that Pantaleo would be fired on Monday. Orta was imprisoned on charges he and many activists claim are illegitimate, as the Daily Dot explains:
“According to an N.Y.P.D. report, officers claimed they saw Orta stuff a gun down a woman’s pants. The gun they recovered had no bullets, no clip, no fingerprints, and had been reported stolen years prior.”
Police also claimed they had footage of Orta’s mother helping him sell drugs, and they arrested her as well. Orta has never seen the video evidence, but took a plea deal in exchange for his mother’s freedom, as per the Daily Dot.
“This case has rained violence upon every person of color even remotely involved, yet, in a legal system in which a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich if that’s what [prosecutors] wanted, Pantaleo hasn’t even lost his badge, let alone gone to trial,” Núñez said in July, before an administrative judge recommended Pantaleo be fired on August 2.
A Measure Of Justice
While Pantaleo’s firing gives a delayed measure of justice to Garner’s family, critics argue broader measures must be taken to end police brutality. Before her death, Erica Garner fought to reform the system by appointing an independent counsel to investigate all police violence cases.
Núñez argues that a profound shift in public awareness is needed to enact true reform:
“If we truly hope to transform and progress as a society, we must stop pretending that we are dealing with a broken system and come to terms with the inconvenient truth that the system is working just as intended.”