Originally published on December 5, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Wednesday that the Justice Department will conduct an investigation into the death of Eric Garner after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the NYPD officer responsible for using a banned chokehold resulting in Garner’s death. Garner is one of at least nine unarmed black people killed by police in recent months. To date, no officers have been charged with the deaths.
Around 4:45pm on July 17, Eric Garner and his friend, Ramsey Orta, were discussing where to eat dinner when a fight erupted nearby. After Garner assisted in breaking up the fight, NYPD Officer Justin Damico approached Garner and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Orta pulled out his phone and began recording the incident on video.
As Garner argued with Damico, Officer Daniel Pantaleo approached Garner from behind and attempted to grab his wrists. After Garner held his arms up in a nonthreatening manner and told the officers not to touch him, Pantaleo immediately placed Garner in a chokehold even though the maneuver has been banned by the department since 1993.
Nonviolent and nonaggressive, Garner fell to the ground as multiple officers held him down. Garner continued to comply as Pantaleo released his chokehold and pushed Garner’s head against the pavement. While the officers subdued him, Garner weakly repeated, “I can’t breathe.”
Garner lost conscious and died of cardiac arrest. In a second video posted by Taisha Allen, officers stood over Garner’s motionless, handcuffed body for several minutes while waiting for paramedics to arrive. Instead of attempting to revive him, the cops dug through Garner’s pockets and ordered everyone to stand back. At the end of the second video, the paramedics arrived to transport Garner to the Richmond University Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
“I felt like they treated him wrong even after the fact that they had him contained,” said Orta.
Pending the investigation, Pantaleo was stripped of his badge and gun, while Damico was placed on desk duty. Two paramedics and two emergency medical technicians who responded to the incident were suspended without pay.
According to city medical examiner spokeswoman Julie Bolcer, Garner was killed by neck compressions from the chokehold and during physical restraint by the police. She added that asthma, heart disease, and obesity had been contributing factors in the 43-year-old’s death. Garner left behind six children and two grandchildren.
On December 22, 1994, a year after the NYPD banned chokeholds, Officer Francis Livoti killed Anthony Baez with a chokehold in the Bronx. After a football accidentally hit his patrol car, Livoti arrested one of Baez’s brothers for disturbing the peace. As Baez argued with the officer, Livoti claims Baez resisted arrest by crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against a parked car. Livoti placed Baez in a chokehold and killed him. After being acquitted for criminally negligent homicide in a state trial, Livoti was eventually convicted in federal court of depriving Baez of his civil rights. Livoti was sentenced to seven and a half years in federal prison.
On Wednesday, the grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo of any criminal charges surrounding Garner’s death. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that up to three other investigations could lead to a civil case or federal charges against Pantaleo. Garner’s family plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the NYPD. Since last year, Pantaleo has been involved in two civil rights lawsuits where plaintiffs alleged he engaged in brutal and racially motivated arrests.
“I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause,” said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. “What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”
Garner joins at least seven other unarmed black men and one child killed by the police in recent months. Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Dontre Hamilton, Dante Parker, Rumain Brisbon, and Tamir Rice lost their lives in instances of excessive force, poor training, and miscommunication. None of the officers involved in their deaths have been charged with committing a crime.
In a press statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – one of our nation’s most profound thinkers on these issues – taught us something very simple: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ The problem of police-community relations and civil rights is not just an issue for people of color – or young people – or people who get stopped by police. This is a fundamental issue for every American who cares about justice.”