Wanted by police for being a hero

June 4, 2015

Lichi D’Amelio reports on the case of Ramsey Orta, whose video of the police murder of Eric Garner galvanized a movement--and unleashed the vengeance of the NYPD.

NEARLY A year has passed since Eric Garner's murder on July 17 at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo.

One wonders what story the officers on the scene in Staten Island that day would have told had it not been for the video footage--now seen around the world--of police surrounding Garner and forcing him to the ground as Pantaleo choked him to death.

The murder was filmed by Ramsey Orta, Garner's 22-year-old friend. Orta's steady hand during the terrifying encounter produced a video that has since been viewed by millions around the world.

Time magazine's Paul Moakley made a short film about Orta's video that won this year's prestigious World Press Photo Multimedia Award. "This award belongs to Ramsey Orta," Moakley said, "who shot this shocking video."

But Orta wasn't able to celebrate with Moakley because he was behind bars. Unbelievably, Ramsey Orta--and not Daniel Pantaleo--is the only person related to the Garner case who has been arrested and charged with any crime.

Ramsey Orta
Ramsey Orta

ON AUGUST 2, one day after the medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, police broke into Orta's home in the middle of the night and arrested him on weapons possession charges, though no guns were found and no DNA linked Orta to any guns.

The following February--two months after a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo for the murder of Garner, sparking a national wave of outraged protest--Orta was arrested along with his mother and brother on drug charges. No drugs were found in this case, but the judge set his bail at an absurdly high $100,000.

While the Staten Island District Attorney and most media outlets have claimed that the charges against Orta are "unrelated" to the Garner case, there's plenty of reason to be skeptical. According to Orta, ever since he went public with the video, the police began following him, randomly searching him, driving by his home and flashing floodlights into the windows.

Early last summer, Orta had decided to start documenting the abuse he saw police routinely dole out to friends and neighbors. In fact, just a week before Garner's murder, Orta filmed the same officers handcuffing, throwing to the ground and beating another friend of his. This is part of the reason he was so ready with the camera when police showed up to harass Garner.

During his time at the city jail on Rikers Island, Orta was so terrified of retaliation that he refused to eat any food provided by the jail, deciding instead to stick to what was available pre-packaged from the commissary.

His fears turned out to be well-founded in March when 19 inmates became sick from what they believe were pellets of rat poison that guards put in their meatloaf--the latest chapter of a brutal history that led the U.S. Attorney last year to release what the New York Times called "a graphic 79-page report that described a 'deep-seated culture of violence' against youthful inmates at the jail complex, perpetrated by guards who operated with little fear of punishment."

NOT GETTING poisoned is only one way that Orta has been luckier than many other prisoners. Perhaps the most incredible part of his story is that he made bail.

In early March, Orta's aunt Lisa Mercado started a GoFundMe account called Standing up for Ramsey Orta in the hopes that supporters would understand the retaliatory nature of the charges and, like her, see Orta for the hero who he is.

Mercado set a goal of $16,000--the portion of the bail needed to pay a bondsmen to secure Orta's release. Soon, donations began trickling in--five dollars here, ten dollars there, the occasional hundred dollars as well--along with words of encouragement and gratitude.

The first month of the campaign generated a few thousand dollars. The family was extremely grateful, but it also seemed like freedom was going to take a while. For Orta, who was at the mercy of Rikers Island guards who knew him as the guy who filmed the murder of Eric Garner--his terror seemed like it would never end.

But in early April, there was a surge in the number of people making donations. The total jumped from about $4,000 to $10,000 on April 6, and by the next day, it became clear that the goal would be reached--and surpassed. Upwards of $50,000 was donated by supporters around the country and internationally to bail Ramsey Orta out of jail.

Mercado and her family sent out tearful, grateful updates and pictures to supporters in the days leading up to Orta's release. After some pushback from the DA's office, which tried to claim that because of the many anonymous donations, the bail money could have come from potentially "illegal sources," Orta was finally released on April 10.

Some have speculated that the surge in donations could have been due to the surfacing of the video showing the murder of Walter Scott on April 4 by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager.

It's noteworthy as well that Feidin Santana--the young man who filmed Slager in the act of shooting Scott in the back, handcuffing him and then planting a weapon beside his body--considered deleting the footage for fear of retaliation from the police department. It was only after he saw that the police account differed widely from what his video proved that he felt compelled to show the footage to Scott's family.

Later events have shown that Santana had good reason to be nervous. Kevin Moore, the man who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray, was arrested two weeks after he released his cell phone video footage to the media. Moore says that he has been harassed and targeted for no other reason than his attempt to exercise his rights.

THIS BLATANT retaliation against those who film the police is becoming an issue of growing concern for activists. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton ominously claimed recently that while people have a right to film cops making arrests, they are "agitating the situations" and becoming "problematic."

Bratton's public condemnation indicates that we can expect more retaliation against video activists, and that we are going to have to think up more ways to broaden the struggle to defend those--like Orta, Moore and Santana--who take great personal risks to document for the world to see the police violence that many of us already know is happening.

"What's happening now is that people are beginning to realize that police officers can and do lie about the circumstances of arrests and of what happens," Orta's lawyer Ken Perry said on Democracy Now! "And that you can't just take their word just because they're police officers. I've seen too many times in trial where just because a police officer says something, it becomes gospel. We know that that's not the case, and that's why this is so important."

While Orta thankfully made it out of Rikers in one piece, he continues to pay a steep price for his decision to air the now infamous video. He has a long road ahead in legal battles--not to mention continuing police harassment. Orta and his entirely family have had to relocate out of Staten Island, which is home to many members of the NYPD.

The heroic actions of people like Ramsey Orta are a major reason why this movement has gained strength and confidence in standing up and challenging the police narrative that has, thus far, dominated the airwaves whenever a police officer murders somebody.

Now that he is out of prison, it's up to the movement to make sure that Ramsey Orta--and others who bravely film the police--are able to stay out.

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