Murdered on the streets of Staten Island

July 22, 2014

Rosa Haire reports from Staten Island on the anger and outrage after New York City police targeted an innocent man for harassment--and caused his horrific death.

CHANTS OF "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" rang out in the streets of Staten Island last Saturday, July 19, as demonstrators marched to protest the killing of an unarmed Black man, Eric Garner, who died after being strangled by New York police in an illegal chokehold.

The chant was a reference to Garner's last pleading words, which can be heard on a horrifying video that captured the murder committed by New York cops.

Now, family and community members are full of grief and anger about the death of a man universally described as a "teddy bear"--and they are demanding justice. Eric Garner is dead today, not just because of the violent actions of one cop, but because of a whole police department where racial profiling and brutality are the rule, and a city government under successive mayors that has demanded aggressive police practices in the name of maintaining "law and order."

GARNER WENT into cardiac arrest after he was placed in a chokehold by plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo. Multiple witnesses say Garner had broken up a fight between two teenagers, which is why police were originally called to the scene. Uninterested in the fight, which had ended by the time the cops arrived, officers began to harass Garner over allegedly selling loose cigarettes on the street.

New York police were captured on video in the act of killing Eric Garner
New York police were captured on video in the act of killing Eric Garner

Outrage about Garner's death might have remained confined to the group of people who witnessed his murder and activists challenging police violence if not for the cell-phone video taken by his friend, Ramsey Orta--which has since gone viral, once again exposing the brutality of the NYPD for the whole world to see. When I spoke to Orta later, he looked visibly exhausted, and told me he had been visited and harassed by the cops since the release of the video.

The video shows Officers Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo, of the 120th Precinct on Staten Island's north shore, questioning Garner over the sale of cigarettes. Garner had been harassed and arrested repeatedly for the sale of untaxed cigarettes--in the video, he appears exasperated, telling the cops, "I'm tired of being harassed. You didn't see me sell anything...I was minding my business, officer. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone!"

With no command to turn around or place his hands behind his back, the officers begin to grab Garner, who yells, "Don't touch me!" Pantaleo comes from behind Garner and places him in a chokehold, tackling him to the ground. Three other cops pile on in restraining Garner, even though he was not physically resisting.

In the video, another officer can be heard saying, "Alright, he's down"--but Pantaleo continues to choke Garner, while lying on top of him. Pantaleo then places his knee in Garner's back and rams his head into the sidewalk--meanwhile, Garner says repeatedly, "I can't breathe." Later in the video, you see Garner's body limp as he's turned over on the ground.

A video that surfaced later in the weekend, shot from a closer vantage point, shows Garner unconscious on the ground, not visibly breathing. An agonizing seven minutes pass while police officers and paramedics who arrive at the scene stand idly by, not performing life-saving maneuvers. When the woman filming the video asks an officer, "Why are you not performing CPR?" the officer responds that Garner is breathing. Yet the video--which at one point shows Garner's eyes roll open as he's lifted on a stretcher--makes that claim questionable.

Pantaleo was placed on desk duty, stripped of his badge and gun, pending investigations by prosecutors and the NYPD itself--though he and Damico are still on the payroll. The four EMS workers who came to the scene of the killing, but didn't immediately assist Garner, have also been placed on modified duty.

Pantaleo has been sued twice over the last two years for harassment. One lawsuit alleged that Pantaleo arrested two Black men without cause and subjected them to a humiliating strip search, in public and in broad daylight--the case was settled with a $30,000 payment to the two men. The other lawsuit alleged Pantaleo falsified a police report to substantiate charges.

One Staten Island resident, Trisha, a friend of Eric's, said in an interview that this wasn't the first time Pantaleo harassed Garner. This seems evident from the video made by Orta, where Eric references a previous encounter with the officers.

THE USE of chokeholds, officially banned by the NYPD in 1993, isn't a new issue for the department. Despite the official ban, over 1,000 complaints about the use of chokeholds have been registered with department's Civilian Complaint Review Board in the last five years.

In 1994, Anthony Baez was killed when Officer Francis Livoti put him in a chokehold--after a football thrown by Baez had struck Livoti's patrol car, sending the officer into a rage. The case caused widespread outrage--Livoti was found not guilty of criminal charges, but was convicted of a federal civil rights violation.

Anthony's mother, Iris Baez, has become a leading figure in the movement to end police brutality. In a beautiful show of solidarity, Iris Baez attended a Saturday rally at the National Action Network's headquarters in Harlem to meet with Eric Garner's wife Esaw and other family members.

Mayor Bill De Blasio, who campaigned on a promise to end the notorious "stop and frisk" racial profiling by the NYPD, said he was "deeply troubled" by the footage he saw of Garner's arrest and killing.

Yet this death is a direct result of the so-called "broken window" style of policing championed by De Blasio's newly appointed Police Commissioner William Bratton. Bratton--a recycled police chief from the Giuliani era of the 1990s--pioneered the policy back then. The theory is that petty crimes need to be confronted and punished to the maximum extent possible in order to curb more serious crimes.

The theory has been discredited by researchers who note the drop in New York City's crime rate in the 1990s was part of a national pattern in this era, not the result of Bratton's policy.

But that hasn't stopped Bratton from pursuing the "broken windows" strategy once again. In his first two months as commissioner under De Blasio, there was a 20 percent spike in arrests for low-level violations such as drinking from an open container or panhandling on the subway. Harassing Eric Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes is just the kind of petty "crime" that gives NYPD officers an excuse for harassment.

In reality, "broken windows" is nothing more than a war on the poor, especially poor people of color. In a city that is vastly unequal, criminalizing such petty offenses unfairly targets Black, Brown and working-class New Yorkers.

ON JULY 21, New Yorkers Against Bratton held a press conference in front of City Hall calling for Bratton's resignation, a federal investigation into the NYPD's culture of brutality and an end to "broken windows"-based policing. New Yorkers Against Bratton organizer Josmar Trujillo denounced Garner's murder, describing it as "an extension of low-level policing." Trujillo continued:

Bratton is unable to control his police officers, and another Black man is dead at the hands of the NYPD. This has been going on for far too long, and activists have been marching till our shoes have worn out.

Individual police are not the only ones responsible: we must ask for a change that is deep and fundamental. Eric Garner's last words were 'It stops today,' and that's what needs to happen. Bratton is poison for communities of color, and we need a New York City with justice for everyone. That means the demand to democratize, for community control of the police.

Alex Vitale, an associate professor at CUNY's Brooklyn College and author of a widely circulated New York Daily News op-ed article on Garner's death, called out NYPD justification for "broken windows," saying "'Quality-of-life' policing is nothing more than harassment of people of color. There is absolutely no support for the theory that 'broken windows' reduces crime."

Garner's funeral will take place on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Bethel Baptist Church, 265 Bergen St. in Brooklyn. After that, activists against racism and police violence plan to continue their campaign to win justice for this latest victim of the NYPD. As Jeanette, another friend of Eric's who witnessed his murder, told me, "Pantaleo should be arrested for homicide and prosecuted as a criminal, because he's the criminal--not Eric."

Eric Garner's cries in the last few moments of his life speak the everyday lived experience of Black men in U.S. cities. Firing the New York cops who applied the chokehold and held him down isn't enough. We need to hold the entire NYPD accountable, starting with an end to the "broken windows" policy that serves as an excuse for abuse and violence.

Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.

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