One warm July afternoon, 43-year-old Eric Garner was standing outside a beauty supply store in Staten Island, New York. Two plainclothes police officers soon approached Garner and began talking to him. According to the Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta, who recorded and witnessed the entire dilemma, Garner had just broken up a fight minutes prior to the officers confronting him. The officers suspected him of selling untaxed loose cigarettes, something that is illegal in the city of New York. While being pestered by the officers, Garner tells them “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”.
At this point, the officers attempt to restrain and arrest Garner, despite having absolutely no grounds on which to detain or arrest him other than pure speculation. As one officer attempts to restrain Garner’s hands, another (Daniel Pantaleo) comes up behind Garner and places him in a chokehold, a tactic that has been banned by the NYPD since the 1990s. Pantaleo still had Garner in a chokehold as more officer show up to wrestle him to the floor. The 6’3″, 350-pound asthmatic Garner collapses to the ground, yet Pantaleo continues to keep him in a chokehold. In the video Pantaleo can be seen placing his knee on Garner’s upper back and shoving his face into the concrete sidewalk. While the police officers were wrestling Garner down, one can hear Garner’s muffled voice say “I can’t breath!” multiple times, each time the plea becoming weaker and weaker before finally falling into silence. Police officers and EMTs on scene did not attempt to revive him until seven minutes after Garner went silent.
The death of Eric Garner shocked and disgusted many throughout the country. Garner’s death is just one of thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of police officers, but what made this one different was that the entire altercation was caught on video. While Garner was indeed resisting arrest, he was doing so in a peaceful manner that did not warrant the lethal force used by the officer.
An autopsy of Garner’s body by New York City’s medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. He concluded that the officer’s compression of Garner’s neck and chest coupled with Garner’s asthma and heart problems led to his death. Other forensic experts also agreed with this conclusion.
Despite both the video evidence and autopsy report, a New York grand jury decided to not bring charges to the police officers involved in Garner’s death. The New York grand jury’s announcement comes on the heels of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The NYPD has been preparing for days for the announcement, expecting Ferguson-esque protests and riots. Soon after the announcement was released, protesters took to the streets in both New York and in cities across the United States.
Many people have demanded that police officers wear body cameras at all times in order to deter such events of brutality or at the very least, document them so we have at least more than just the officer’s account. President Obama is one of the proponents of this measure as he recently requested $263 million from Congress to purchase the body cameras and provide training for 50,000 of the devices. President Obama also vowed he would ensure that the United States is not building a “militarized culture” in its police forces. But with the fact that the same people that pushed for a more militarized police force are the same people that make our laws, it is unlikely to happen.
Forcing police officers to wear body cameras might be a step in the right direction, but it is far from a fix-all solution. The famous Rodney King beatings were captured on the police cruiser’s dash cam, yet the officers involved in that were fully acquitted. That was nearly 20 years ago, and not much has changed since then. Much like King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD, the entire encounter between Eric Garner and the NYPD was caught on camera, in broad daylight nonetheless. That didn’t matter to the grand jury, though, as they still found reason to not press charges against him.
Many people were quick to draw comparisons between the Eric Garner case and the Michael Brown case; a white police officer killing an otherwise non-violent black man. But the similarities end there. Unlike the Brown case, Garner’s death at the hands of police officers was caught on tape. There was no conflicting eye-witness reports, no contradictory forensic evidence. The video leaves absolutely no doubt as to what happened that fateful summer afternoon. Despite this, jurors still managed to acquit Pantaleo simply because he did not “intend” to kill Garner.
Police brutality and abuse of power has been a toxic issue in the United States. But in the generation of social media, we have the ability to document and broadcast every single moment . So this wave of police brutality and misconduct isn’t something new. It’s something that has been around for decades, it’s just that we posses such an unprecedented ability to record and report such misconduct nowadays that make it appear more prevalent.
There was once a time were one could simply say it was an isolated incident, nothing more than a bad apple ruining the bunch. But when one sees a new report of police officers killing unarmed civilians or otherwise abusing their power practically every week, one begins to realize that the structure and system are inherently malicious.
Because Garner was black and Pantaleo was white, the racial undertones of this entire case are hard to dismiss. Consider this: back in April of 2014, a party at the University of Tennessee spilled over into the residential neighborhoods surrounding the university. Police officers were quickly on the scene, Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Phillips was among them. choked white University of Tennessee student Jarod Dotson while he was being handcuff for supposedly resisting arrest until the student went unconscious. Well the police officer in that incident got fired. Not placed on administrative leave, not demoted to desk work but fired. The similarities between that case and the Eric Garner case are eerily similar but the cases had radically different outcomes. Why was Phillips fired from the force while Pantaleo remains on it, despite the fact that Pantaleo actually killed a man?
Making it into a race issue is not the best course of action because when you do so, it automatically separates and divides people. When it is transformed into a race issue, a lot of white and black people will see it as just that. Some whites will even be ignorant enough to believe that police brutality only happens to minorities. The simple fact is that it doesn’t matter whether you are white, black, Asian, or Latino, the likelihood of you either being harassed or even killed by the police is very real.
For those of you who don’t believe me, let me tell you about one such incident. In 2013, black police officer Trevis Austin shot and killed white University of South Alabama student Gil Collar. According to Austin, Collar, who was tripping on an LSD-like research chemical 25I-NBOMe, charged at him. Video evidence shows that Collar did not get within five feat of Austin, nor did he prove to be threat enough to warrant deadly force. Critics say argue that Austin could have used non-lethal force, such as a baton or stun gun to subdue him. A grand jury decided that Austin did indeed fear for his life, thus clearing him of any charge.
We as a society need to demand more accountability and more transparency from police departments. Too many people have died or have otherwise unnecessarily suffered at the hands of the police. The people who are supposed to be protecting and serving us are the same ones that are instilling fear and anger into the hearts and minds of the American people. Why should a police officer’s badge grant him more rights than the average person? But more importantly, when will it stop? When will all the killing and abuse of power stop?