Eric Garner: A Rumpus Roundup

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In July, unarmed black man Eric Garner died after he was placed in a chokehold by a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, on Staten Island, a suburban borough of New York City.

This might sound eerily similar to the case of Michael Brown. Or similar to Akai Gurley. Or to any of the hundreds of homicides committed by police annually. (Problematically, even the FBI doesn’t know exactly how many black people local police kill each year, although their estimates put the number at 400.)

But today, we’re all talking about Eric Garner.

On the afternoon of July 17, witnesses say asthmatic 43-year-old Eric Garner had just broken up a fight—the ‘gentle giant‘ often helped quell disputes—when police arrived.

The police confronted Garner. Local police had been harassing Garner for months.

Then police placed Garner in a chokehold, a practice banned two decades earlier. Garner pled with officers, noting that he could not breath, and the chokehold eventually induced cardiac arrest. Garner died.

We know this is what happened because Ramsey Orta caught the incident on video. Literally, without the video, nobody would know what happened since the police report, for some reason, failed to mention the chokehold.

Perhaps not surprisingly, shortly after releasing the video, police began harassing Orta and eventually arrested him. Police then arrested Orta’s wife.

The coroner declared Garner’s death a homicide. But as with Michael Brown, a grand jury was still required to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo.

To make the case, the prosecutor offered Pantaleo’s partner, Justin D’Amico, immunity in exchange for testimony.

As summer turned into autumn, events played out in Ferguson, Missouri. Following the Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, violence and demonstrations broke out across the nation. In anticipation of the Staten Island grand jury announcement, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton admitted to sending New York Police Officers out of state to St. Louis to spy on what he termed “agitators.”

On Wednesday, the Staten Island jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo.

Protestors, already angered by events in Ferguson, quickly amassed across the nation. In New York, protests targeted Rockefeller Center’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a pageant broadcast live by NBC. Protestors also staged a die-in at Grand Central Terminal during rush hour. Protests expanded, closing the Lincoln Tunnel, West Side Highway, Brooklyn Bridge, and other streets as well as interrupting a basketball game at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Gothamist has put together a gallery of 88 images.

Protests occurred nationwide, marching on Philadelphia’s tree lighting, closing 15th Street in Washington D.C., shutting streets with die-ins around the Bay Area, and demonstrating in other cities from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Still, there are differences between what happened in St. Louis and this incident. When Darren Wilson fired his gun, there should have been a reasonable belief that the gunshot would kill Michael Brown, while the same may not be said for the chokehold that killed Garner.

But really, the main difference is this video.

Who could see this video and not indict? For starters, public school teachers on Staten Island protested the protestors, wearing matching t-shirts to show support for the NYPD. Even though 64% New Yorkers across the city approved of charging Pantaleo, only 41% of Staten Island residents did. Maybe, then, you won’t be surprised to learn that Staten Island is 77.6% white.

Perhaps its worth mentioning again that grand juries almost always indict.

Nothing is resolved.

Members of New York City’s congressional delegation have called for a federal investigation. City council members want an investigation too. And Attorney General Eric Holder has already announced that there will be a civil rights investigation.

Regardless of the outcome of criminal investigations, Eric Garner’s family is filing a wrongful death civil suit against the city. They are seeking $75 million, adding to the nearly a half-billion dollars paid out over the last five years because of the NYPD.

Meanwhile, Slate explores how American journalists might write about recent events if they had taken place in an unfriendly foreign power instead of in our own backyard.

But everything is going to be fine because Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced body cameras that one day, maybe might be worn by the NYPD. Or maybe not. Staten Island did indict one notable person yesterday: Ramsey Orta, the videographer responsible for capturing Garner’s death on camera.

More protests are planned for tonight. In New York, protests are scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at Foley Square in Manhattan. For more information, track events on Twitter with the hashtags #ShutItDown and #BlackLivesMatter.


Ian MacAllen's fiction has appeared in 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, and elsewhere and nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Negatives, Electric Literature, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →