Eric Garner has been dead since July of last year after police officers forcibly apprehended him on the streets of Staten Island for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes. He may be dead, but Garner is not gone.
For the most part, his death by chokehold and his cries of “I can’t breathe” as his life expired have been kept current by protesters, but his memory recently gained fresh currency from some unexpected quarters.
Tuesday, Judge Jonathan Lippman invoked Garner’s name in his proposal to reform grand jury proceedings involving police officers when they are not indicted. This was an astonishing announcement coming from Lippman, who is the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
“Of immediate concern are the perceptions of some that prosecutors’ offices, which work so closely with the police, as they must and should, are unable to objectively present to the grand jury cases arising out of police-civilian encounters,” Lippman told a courtroom full of jurists and lawyers in his Law Day address. “To me, it is obvious that we need significant change in grand jury practices and protocols in the world we live in today.”
Providing more transparency to grand jury hearings, a demand often raised by activists, was cheered by those who say the police and prosecutors are much too closely aligned, while those opposed feel the judge’s proposal overreaches.
The judge called the grand jury process a “relic of the past” sorely in need of reforming.
Lippman’s remarks have renewed discussion of one aspect of Garner’s death in the same way Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock protest group, have given him new life in the world of music. Wednesday, the group’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina released their first song in English, titled “I Can’t Breathe” and dedicated to all those “who can’t breathe,” the activists said.
In the video, the two performers are seen in a grave, dressed in Russian police garb, with dirt being tossed on them. They are being buried alive while they sing, “I can’t breathe.”
They said they composed the song after taking part in street protests against police, and the song clearly has a double edge in its condemnation of the Russian riot police, who harassed, attacked and jailed members of Pussy Riot.
“The genre of this isn’t like other Pussy Riot songs,” they told The Guardian newspaper. “It’s an industrial ballad. Dark and urban. The rhythm and beat of the song is a metaphor of the heartbeat, the beat of a heart before it’s about to stop. The absence of our usual aggressive punk vocals in this song is a reaction to this tragedy.”