Follow the Soapbox
The New Yorker
By Jonathan Blitzer

On July 17th, New York City policemen wrestled a forty-three-year-old man named Eric Garner to the ground in front of a beauty salon on Staten Island. They claimed to have seen Garner selling cigarettes illegally, something he’d been known to do. But not this time, he protested. “I did nothing,” he said. “I’m just here minding my own business, officer…. Please, just leave me alone!” Despite Garner’s pleas, Daniel Pantaleo, a plainclothesman wearing cargo shorts and a baseball cap, came up behind him and put him in a chokehold; while Garner writhed on the pavement, three other cops rushed in to cuff him. Garner was a large man—six feet three inches tall and three hundred and fifty pounds—and asthmatic. Within seconds he was unconscious, and within minutes, dead. He gasped his last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Many of us have watched this scene, in a widely circulated video shot by a bystander. When Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, found out about the video on the night of her son’s death she felt, for a moment, a sense of relief. “I said to myself, ‘there is a God,’” she told me when we met at her Staten Island home this past weekend. At least there was clear evidence of what had happened to her son, Carr thought, although she could not bring herself to watch it.

Five months later, the video is at the center of the deliberations of a New York City grand jury, which is expected to decide any day whether there is enough evidence for prosecutors to bring charges against the police officers and proceed to trial. New York is one of some thirty states that rely on a grand jury to decide whether a felony case should go to trial. (Other states have a judge make that determination.) The threshold for going to trial—probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed—is low, but prosecutors have notoriously wide latitude in terms of what they choose to present to a grand jury. Carr told me that her main concern, particularly after Ferguson, is that protracted deliberations mean that the prosecutor is essentially trying the case before the grand jury.

Unlike in Ferguson, where accounts conflicted as to what, exactly, happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the evidence in Eric Garner’s case is plain to see. Pantaleo clearly put Garner in a chokehold, which N.Y.P.D. protocol forbids, although its use is notoriously hard to prosecute. (In 2013, the Civilian Complaint Review Board logged two hundred and thirty-three allegations of chokeholds by police; more than sixty per cent of the cases were thrown out for lack of evidence.) Garner’s wails (“I can’t breathe”) are conspicuously unheeded. He never resists arrest, and appears not to have been told he was being arrested in the first place. In the footage, he looks confused, and staggers as the police converge on him. When the coroner’s report came out, a month later, the cause of death was unequivocal: compression of the neck and chest.

Gwen Carr, who works as a train operator for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was on her break, on a subway platform in Astoria, when she heard that her son had a run-in with the police. She had received a flurry of calls, from people “who don’t usually call me,” she said. Nobody she spoke to had witnessed the assault, but they’d all heard some account of what had happened. They told Carr about “some confrontation with the police … something with his heart.” Carr panicked and called her husband, who knew no more than she did. Her break ended, and rather than leave work and ride the train home, she decided to operate it back to Coney Island, as scheduled. “If I operate, I’m back in the cab, by myself,” she said. “I wanted to be alone.” Her husband was waiting for her with the news that their son had been killed. He tried to get her all the way home before telling her, but couldn’t. At one point, a policeman stopped them for speeding, but then, on hearing what happened, let them rush off. “I just lost my mind. I tried to kick the windshield out of the car,” Carr said. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know about the video. All I knew was that he told me my son was no longer here…. I think I blanked out after that.”

Hours after Garner’s death, the Daily News got hold of the video recording, and it circulated widely that night. Pantaleo had to surrender his badge and gun, and the E.M.T.s who were called to the scene and had gingerly prodded Garner but had not administered oxygen or tried to resuscitate him, were immediately suspended without pay. Later that week, dozens of protesters gathered on Staten Island to call for justice; soon after, there were slightly larger crowds in Times Square. Once Garner’s autopsy was made public, in August, thousands of protesters took to the streets on Staten Island.

The twenty-three-person grand jury convened the following month; its proceedings are secret, and little is known about what has transpired so far. The last time that a New York City police offer was charged for using a chokehold was in 1994. The officer, Francis Livoti—who killed a twenty-nine-year-old man named Anthony Baez—was acquitted in a state trial, but later convicted in federal court and sentenced to seven years in prison for criminally negligent homicide. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner, has a troubled history of his own. Pantaleo has been sued twice over the past two years for harassing people during arrests. According to the Staten Island Advance, the city paid plaintiffs thirty thousand dollars to settle one of the suits, in 2012, in which Pantaleo and other officers were accused of strip-searching two men.

Last week’s news from Ferguson was especially hard for the friends and family of Eric Garner. The parallels are easy to draw: two black men killed by white police officers, public outrage at their deaths, and belabored grand-jury proceedings. Carr was with Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, when the Ferguson grand-jury announcement came in. “Our eyes were glued to the TV, and as we heard the prosecutor explaining everything, I knew we weren’t going to get anything good,” Carr said. “But, you know, we were still hoping. Then, when he said there was no probable cause found, it just took the wind out of me.” The next two nights, thousands of protestors walked the streets and bridges of New York. At one point, Eric Garner’s widow Esaw got stuck in the traffic caused by the protests on the Lower East Side. She stepped out of the car and told passersby who she was. “People were saying, ‘We’re marching for you; we’re marching for justice,’” she told me.

Carr’s apartment, which she shares with her husband Ben, is filled with photographs of her family. By the door are photos of Carr’s parents, who were from North Carolina and Georgia (Carr herself grew up in Brooklyn), and along the walls are images of her children and grandchildren. Along a shelf above her couch are a string of Christmas stockings bearing the names of her great-grandchildren. Carr’s other son, Emory, died nineteen years ago, at the age of twenty-four, when he was robbed in Troy, New York. His death “really took the starch out of me,” she said. “That got me down for a long, long time.” In one corner of the apartment, between the kitchen and the living room, Carr has created a small memorial to Eric, with a painting of him sent to her by a sympathetic stranger and a poster from a demonstration fringed with marchers’ signatures. Resting on a ledge is a small chest with some of his belongings, as well as his asthma pump and medications.

“I’m just hoping they give us a fair decision,” she told me. “If you’ve seen the video, you’ve seen that my son has done nothing—nothing!—to cause this to happen to him,” she said. “I always taught my children to respect the police. I always respected them.”

In anticipation of the grand-jury announcement, the New York Police Department has started preparing for large-scale protests. As police commissioner William Bratton told the press, “We have the ability to have a level of tolerance—breathing room, if you will.”



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