Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner (282092)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

“My son’s death is not going in vain. We are going to fight this to the last straw if I’m the only one out on the street.”

The mother of Eric Garner, Gwen Carr, was heartbroken to find out through the media that the officers involved in her son’s 2014 death would not face any federal charges. She learned of the news as she was on her way to meet with the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue.

According to attorney Michael Hardy of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, those in the room during the meeting included Garner’s widow Esaw Snipes, his daughter Emerald and son Eric. Sharpton was also in the room along with the family’s attorney, Jonathan Moore.

Donoghue was in the room with some of his associates and offered his condolences, which were rejected by Emerald. He then confirmed what had been reported in the media—that his office was not going to charge any of the NYPD officers, most notably Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner by putting him in a chokehold.

Emerald walked out in anger.

“We don’t need your apology or sympathy,” she said. “You refused to find justice for my father.”

The moment set off a full day of outrage that’s sure to extend into the coming weeks as Garner’s family vows not to end their quest for justice.

It was five years ago this week that Garner was killed by NYPD officers during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. Pantaleo put him in what appeared to be a prohibited chokehold. The incident was caught on cellphone video, on which Garner can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The city medical examiner at the time ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Hardy said that although the family is disappointed in the Department of Justice’s decision, they feel empowered.

“The family is doing well,” he said. “They have been so empowered that they want to be part of the solution here and not have this happen again in the future. The family is encouraged. The primary issue is the decision on Pantaleo and whatever needs to be done to expedite that. If there was ever a family that has been denied justice, it’s this family.”

Over the past five years, Garner’s case has been before three U.S. attorneys for the Eastern District of New York, four U.S. attorney generals and two U.S. presidents. Justice was denied at the local level when a Richmond County grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo.

Pantaleo is currently in an NYPD departmental hearing to determine if he’ll keep his badge; his fate will be decided by the end of the month. Civilian Complaint Review Board Chair Fred Davie said in a statement that the Justice’s Department decision should have no impact on Pantaleo’s departmental hearing.

“Our last hope for justice in this case lies with the Police Commissioner. CCRB prosecutors presented evidence at trial that showed—unequivocally—that Officer Pantaleo engaged in misconduct worthy of termination. The evidence directly contradicts the statements made earlier today by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District.”

The journey has not been an easy one for Garner’s family, from constant denials of justice, to the death of Garner’s daughter Erica in 2017. Dedicating her own life to activism seeking justice for her father, Erica passed away from a heart attack.

In a last-ditch effort to get justice, Garner’s family and supporters went to Washington, D.C. on Monday for the Justice Department to move on a decision before the statute ran out. Last Sunday, more than 20 mothers who have lost their children to police brutality attended a church service in New Jersey to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death.

“Our lives don’t matter,” Carr said during a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday. “Look what administration we are under. This should have been taken care of years ago. This should have been taken care of under the Obama administration—then we would have had a fairer playing ground. But today, what are we faced with? We are still faced with people who don’t care about our lives.”

Speaking outside of the the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Sharpton said now that the Justice Department has failed, the NYPD should move to terminate Pantaleo from the force.

“Five years ago today, Eric Garner was choked to death,” Sharpton said. “Today, the federal government choked lady justice. This is one chapter, but don’t close the book. Daniel Pantaleo must be fired. The mayor should fire Pantaleo and that should happen immediately. There’s nothing standing in the way of that happening.”

Speaking on the decision not to bring charges, Donoghue called the Garner case an “exhaustive investigation.” He said that the Department of Justice concluded that insufficient evidence existed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officers violated Garner’s civil rights.

Reports indicate that U.S. Attorney General Williams Barr made the final call on the decision not to move forward in prosecuting Pantaleo. Barr overruled the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division which recommended charges be brought against Pantaleo.

“When we evaluated Officer Pantaleo’s actions in light of his training and experience, Mr. Garner’s size, weight and actions to resist arrest, and the duration and escalating nature of their interaction, we determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo acted in willful violation of the law,” said Donoghue.

State Attorney General Letitia James said the Department of Justice failed on its fundamental principles.

“In times like these, we must remember that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In memory of Eric Garner and all others who have lost their lives unjustly, we will continue to fight for reforms to a criminal justice system that remains broken.”

Upon news of the decision, demonstrators hit the streets in peaceful protests including a march on Tuesday through the streets of Harlem organized by Black Lives Matter, and large demonstrations on Thursday in Times Square and Foley Square. It was also announced that protesters plan to participate in acts of civil disobedience in the city over the next 11 days.

Criticism has been targeted toward Mayor and U.S presidential candidate Bill de Blasio, who is being urged to step in to fire Pantaleo. De Blasio touted the city’s police reforms and said he doesn’t have the power to fire the officer.

“There is a law that determines first; everyone gets due process,” de Blasio said during a radio interview. “You would want it. I would want it. Everyone gets it. Second, by state law that is the police commissioner’s decision. I have faith that he is a person who has really worked hard to make this a city that’s fair.”

“The bottom line is Mayor de Blasio is Commissioner O’Neill’s boss…Anybody knows that if your boss tells you to do something, you do it,” said Loyda Colon of Communities for Police Reform’s Justice Committee. “Especially when it’s something like firing someone who murdered a New Yorker, a New Yorker who wasn’t committing a crime, a New Yorker who wasn’t armed.”

Several politicians have shown their support for the Garner family by being by their side on the day the announcement was made, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblyman Michael Blake, Councilmember Debi Rose, State Sen. Brian Benjamin and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“I am neither surprised by this decision, nor am I resigned to stop fighting for some semblance of justice still to be delivered,” Williams said. “I’ve spent too many hours with Gwen Carr and the Garner family, continuing to fight as she continues to grieve—not only for her own family but for too many other families who have lost loved ones and been denied justice. That fight continues.”