Each day brings new developments in the death of Eric Garner. Last Friday, the city’s medical examiner announced that Garner’s death resulted from a chokehold, something that was evident from the cellphone video of the encounter. To the relief of Garner’s family and their supporters seeking clarity and justice in the case, the official ruling was that the death was a “homicide.”
The medical examiner’s report, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, “confirmed what we’ve been saying for the last two weeks. This is about an illegal chokehold that caused his death and that is probable cause for arrest.”
Hazel N. Dukes, NAACP New York State conference president, called the medical examiner’s report “a step in the right direction. I stand along with the NAACP Staten Island Branch President Edward C. Josey, New York and the entire community to see that justice is served for Mr. Garner. We will be closely watching the investigation—and working to see that violence against our community at the hands of the police ends.”
July 17, Garner, 43, the father of six children, was approached by uniformed and undercover police officers who sought to arrest him for peddling illegal cigarettes in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island. When Garner refused to be handcuffed, pleading with the officers that he had done nothing wrong, Officer Daniel Pantaleo slipped behind him and grabbed him in a chokehold, wrestling the more than 300 pound man to the pavement.
Other officers surrounded Garner and pinned him to the sidewalk. Pantaleo pressed his head down severely while others knelt on his body. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Garner can be heard repeatedly saying. But the officers continue to hold him down, although he’s clearly immobilized.
According to the report from the medical examiner and a statement from the medical examiner’s office’s director of public affairs, Julie Bolcer, Garner died as a result of “compression of neck, compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner also suffered from obesity, acute asthma and hypertensive cardiovascular disease, all of which may have contributed to his death.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president, Pat Lynch, said at a press conference Tuesday, “It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say that we go out on our streets to choke people of color, as Al Sharpton stated while seated right next to our mayor at City Hall.” Lynch decried “the lack of respect for law enforcement resulting from the slanderous, insulting and unjust manner in which police officers are being portrayed by race baiters, politicians, pundits and even our elected officials.”
Lynch also said that the restraining move that killed Garner wasn’t actually a chokehold, and the medical examiner got it wrong. Councilwoman Inez Barron said Lynch is essentially claiming that “people didn’t really actually see what they saw.”
Sharpton responded to Lynch by saying, “It is time to have a mature conversation about policing rather than immature name-calling and childish attempts to scapegoat. Within the realm of criminal justice, my credibility and that of the National Action Network is established, even the president of the United States and the United States attorney general spoke at our convention here in New York in April, and both have participated in several prior conventions. So my visit to City Hall is not exactly the highlight of my year or necessary to accreditate our views.”
This brouhaha happened in the wake of the July 31 City Hall press conference, which featured Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sharpton. There, while the mayor looked on, Sharpton pointed into the audience and stated that if Dante de Blasio were not the mayor’s son, he, too, would be a candidate for police misconduct. However, since Bill de Blasio ran his mayoral campaign last year, many Black folk noted that on any given day, his teenage son Dante could “fit the description.”
“The mayor should understand that Dante fits the description for any cop having a bad day, or just deciding that he’s got to grab a Black person for some random crime,” said activist Divine Allah. “Then again, with the rate they are locking up Black women, Chirlaine and Chiara could be looked at as suspects, too. We have a problem with law enforcement, and since de Blasio very visibly and purposefully showcased his Black family during his campaign for mayor last year, he should be aware most definitely what issues face Black communities in the real world.”
Sharpton told an overflow crowd at the National Action Network that the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel Donovan, either “needs to say ‘I’m moving forward to an arrest’ or ‘I’m deferring to the federal government.’”
Referring to the medical examiner’s homicide ruling, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said, “Thank you, Jesus,” during an appearance last Saturday at the National Action Network. She said these were the first words from her mouth upon hearing the medical examiner’s report about her son’s death.
At the moment, Pantaleo has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk assignment pending investigation. A spokesperson for the Richmond County district attorney’s office, Douglas Auer, said the investigation of Garner’s death continues. “We await the issuance of the official death certificate and the autopsy report,” he said.
Lynch defended Pantaleo, asserting that his reassignment was “completely unwarranted” and a “knee-jerk reaction for political reasons.” He added that the medical examiner’s report “indicates that Mr. Garner was a man with serious health problems, so there will have to be a complete and thorough analysis of all the factors that played a part in this tragedy. We believe, however, that if he had not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred.”
“Police Commissioner Bill Bratton must go!” repeated former Councilman Charles Barron. “He should have never been appointed. The death of our brother Eric Garner must be put at the doorsteps of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. His ‘broken windows’ theory on crime—arrest people (especially Black and Brown people) for minor crimes now, then you will prevent them from committing major crimes later—is stupid and racist.
This practice is causing more unnecessary violent confrontations with police and our people. An elderly man was beaten by police for jaywalking, and now Brother Garner was choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. He told them the he wasn’t selling any cigarettes, and after they attacked him, he told them eight times that he couldn’t breathe. These killer cops should be tried, convicted, sentenced and thrown under the jail for the rest of their lives.”
In response to Garner’s death, Bratton announced that all NYPD officers will undergo retraining. He also reiterated his “broken windows” policy, in which the police are ordered to crackdown on quality-of-life crimes. That “broken windows” policy is being challenged by activists who see it as nothing more than more “broken promises” from the mayor.
“It’s not about retraining the police,” Sharpton retorted to Bratton’s proposal. “It’s about humanity. Even a child understands when a man says ‘I can’t breathe.’” He also discussed his comment that the mayor’s son could be put in a chokehold, which created quite a furor. “I said that because the mayor’s son did a commercial on stop-and-frisk,” he explained.
“The NAACP will continue to monitor and advocate for justice on behalf of Mr. Eric Garner and his family,” said Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president and CEO. “We believe that [the] ruling by the [city] medical examiner is an important first step in the journey towards full accountability by the New York police officers who meted out this heinous crime—as well as the public servants who failed to assist a victim in need. The citizens of New York deserve law enforcement that both protects and respects the public.”
Meanwhile, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has called on Donovan “to immediately charge the police officers involved in the senseless death of Mr. Garner with homicide.” Additionally, the LDF demands that de Blasio and Bratton scrutinize the training, policies and practices of the New York City Police Department and end the so-called broken windows policing policy to ensure that, in the words of the “Justice for Eric Garner” Facebook page, “This stops today.”
“The killing of Mr. Garner is the latest example of how the over-aggressive policing of nonviolent, minor crime hurts Black and Latina/o New Yorkers and undermines confidence in the police within communities of color,” said Christina Swarns, LDF’s litigation director.
“Mr. Garner now joins Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Anthony Baez, Mohamed Bah and the dozens of other Black men who were senselessly killed by members of the NYPD as another painful example of how ‘broken windows’ policing—which prioritizes the enforcement of minor, quality-of-life crimes, like the sale of untaxed cigarettes—too often translates into the brutal and discriminatory policing of Black and Brown New Yorkers and the tragic deaths of innocent people,” Swarns said.
A demand gaining critical mass nationwide is, as LDF states, that “the NYPD’s policies and practices must be examined and changed to ensure that no more innocent New Yorkers die at the hands of the police.”
In a related incident, Ramsey Orta, 22, who used his cellphone to record Garner’s death, was arrested Saturday and charged with gun possession. He was seen leaving a hotel on Staten Island with a young woman and allegedly slipped the gun to her.
Sharpton, in a press conference on Sunday, quickly said that Orta’s arrest should have no effect on Garner’s case. “His cellphone was the eyewitness,” the reverend said, “not Orta.”
“So the word is out that the police are watching Mr. Orta, and there is talk that he might be in danger, and all of a sudden they managed to see him pass a gun to someone—and then they arrest him?” said activist Divine Allah. “Is this remnants of COINTELPRO—J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program—surveillance and neutralization. Come on! At Eric Garner’s funeral some people said [Orta] was in fear for his life. He knew the police had him under surveillance. He exposed them, and so they went after him.” Tuesday, Aug. 5, Orta’s wife was arrested for an altercation with another woman.
Monday, Sharpton went to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal authorities to discuss with them the possibility of handling the Garner affair if the Staten Island district attorney balks.