Reflections on the Death of Eric Garner
In the wake of the decision of a New York grand jury not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chocking death of 43-year-old unarmed Black peddler Eric Garner, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Garner's death “a terrible tragedy” and pledged to continue to explore ways to curb the use of excessive force by police. In both style and substance, it was the kind of statement that protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, wanted to hear from politicians in the aftermath of the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. Then again, New York has had far more practice in apologizing for unchecked police brutality. This explains why to some de Blasio’s words ring hollow. More than two decades ago, the New York City Police Department actually banned the very hold that resulted in Garner’s death.
Given the current discussion on ways to restore harmony to police-community relations, it is worth revisiting this history. In November of 1993, the NYPD officially banned the use of chokeholds. Explaining the decision, the Department's Chief of the Office of Management, Analysis and Planning, John F. Timoney, stated what should have been obvious, “We are in the business of protecting life, not taking it. The bottom line is that if somebody is emotionally disturbed, they really need police help and we should render it in the most humane and professional way possible.”
It is difficult to read those words and not to think of the video of Eric Garner clearly pleading for his life with the officers who took him down in a violent tussle. “I can’t breathe,” he muttered nearly a dozen times before he lapsed into unconsciousness with policeman Daniel Pantelo’s arm still wrapped around his neck. He never revived. At the very least, the use of the banned chokehold warranted an indictment.
At the time of the department’s decision to ban the chokehold, there was an ongoing national debate over the use of excessive force by law enforcement. In 1980, for instance, Los Angeles police banned chokeholds in advance of several wrongful death lawsuits and in response to growing public outrage, particularly in Black and Brown communities, over the number of deaths associated with police use of deadly holds.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of people killed by New York police administering similar holds, the city managed to avoid the issue until 1985 when police officials issued a pronouncement carefully outlining new guidelines for the appropriate use of such submission grips. The order, which defined chokeholds as “potentially lethal and unnecessary,” outlawed their use with one exception “when an officer's life was in danger.” Even then the deadly maneuver was only to be applied as a last resort and as the “least dangerous alternative method of restraint.”
Nevertheless over the next eight years, the killings continued. One of the touchstone cases involved 21-year-old car theft suspect Federico Pereira who died after a police officer Anthony Paparella placed him in a chokehold in the wee hours of the morning of February of 1991. Pereira’s slaying was particularly barbaric. After police discovered him sitting in a stolen car, he was placed face down, rear-handcuffed, and hogtied. Paparella then according to the prosecutor in the case “pulled back on his neck and choked him.”
An autopsy later revealed that Pereira died of “traumatic asphyxia.” Police originally filed charges against five officers in Pereira’s death. When a new District Attorney swept into office that spring, however, he threw out the charges against four and reduced the charges against Paparella to manslaughter. Much to the Pereira family and the community’s dismay, a trial judge acquitted Paparella of any wrongdoing in 1992.
Pereira's death, however, seemed not to have been a beacon for change when the following year, with tensions in the city still simmering, officials amended the 1985 chokehold protocol. While police Commissioner Raymond Kelley attempted to frame the modification as more of a clarification than a wholesale revision, the change was nevertheless substantive. The 1993 amendment outlawed chokeholds without exception.
Fast forward to the summer of 2014 when Eric Garner had the misfortune of encountering Officer Daniel Pantelo and other police officers on a warm July afternoon. Allegedly, Garner peddled illegal smokes. It was hardly the type of crime that justified deadly force—especially not deadly force in the form of a lethal and illegal chokehold. Yet on clear cell phone video, millions of people worldwide watched and re-watched Eric Garner’s life extinguished literally at the hands of officer Dave Pantelo.
So why did the grand jury considering charges against Pantelo fail to indict? Perhaps for the same reason the grand jury in Ferguson failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they—like many others—identified more with the authorities that did the killing than their unarmed victims.
One of the words most often used to describe Black and Brown “suspects” from Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner to Michael Brown is thug. In the narratives spun to explain their ignominious deaths and despite the menial nature of their transgressions, they become larger than life representations of all the fear and negativity associated with the inherent assumption of criminality that accompanies the use of the word.
Their killers, on the other hand, are portrayed as the last line of defense between the law-abiding public and Black and Brown thugs waiting to prey on them. They enjoy a degree of empathy as the “Thin blue line” often described as “the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness” and for a many people of color, victimized by laws such as stop and frisk and racial profiling, the line between Black and white.
Significantly in the graphic representation, the thin blue line is embedded in a Black background meant to serve from the officer’s perspective as a “constant reminder of our fallen brother and sister officer.” What it has come to represent for many people of color in the United States is presence of police as an occupying army, present not to serve and protect, but serve as judge, jury and executioner, on Black and Brown bodies in public spaces. Rightly or wrongly, this view is reinforced every time the very persons entrusted to ensure safety and security take the life of another person of color.
Predictably, critics of this view attempt to shift the discussion to the high rate of Black on Black crime and the difficult position police face in patrolling neighborhoods where such crime is prevalent. They fail to appreciate the cyclical nature of the problem as one of poverty and mistrust with deep historical roots often fed by police misconduct in failing to appreciate the humanity of the people in the communities they patrol. While communities of color have tried to make this clear, the larger society remains fixated on crime and the “thin blue line.” The explosion in gun sales in Ferguson, Missouri in advance of the Grand Jury’s verdict in the Darren Wilson case is indicative of this.
Several theories have been floated about the New York grand jury’s decision not to indict. Officer Pantaleo’s remorseful testimony before that body remains the most compelling. In spite of the video evidence and the testimony of other eyewitnesses, Pantaleo was able to confirm what we all desperately want to believe that the police exist to serve and protect. Sometimes, they make mistakes but for the most part they are well intentioned.
Our nation can no longer afford to function as two societies, separate and unequal, deeply divided, and policed by the racially insensitive Thin Blue Line.
Pantaleo claimed that he never intended to hurt Garner. He said the move he used was not a chokehold, but a wrestling move that he accidentally applied after he and Garner nearly fell into a nearby glass window. What began, he claimed, as a sanctioned police hold accidentally morphed into the lethal chokehold. Pantaleo also acknowledged that he knew he was being recorded, apparently confirming in the jury’s mind that what transpired was not intentional but a series of unfortunate circumstances precipitated by Garner’s resisting arrest. Why, his testimony left them to consider, would he blatantly apply such a hold in full view of cell phone recording devices.
While suspects rarely testify before grand juries, Pantaleo and his counsel understood that in this case his testimony would carry significant weight. As Paul Martin one of the lawyers in the Sean Bell case conceptualized the problem the testimony of police officers in such cases carries strong credibility. Police officers may further enjoy what Martin described as the professional sympathy and courtesy of prosecutors who work most closely with police and empathize with their predicament. This was clearly at work in Ferguson. Time will tell if the same is true for New York.
In the meantime, we are left to bear the burden of grief and disbelief regarding the decisions in both cases. While the words of Mayor de Blasio and even President Barack Obama were offered as a political salve on the deep emotional wound both decisions have left, where, we are left to ponder, is the real sympathy for the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Sympathy will not be found in empty expressions of grief for their loss, but the impetus for real change that must begin with a hard look at the entire criminal justice system in the United States and a move toward real reform, if not whole scale revision.
Such reform will have to tackle the issue of race. We can no longer, as Attorney General Eric Holder observed, remain a nation of cowards on this subject. The cost is too high in life, in property damage, and in our efforts to ensure fair and democratic practice.
Until mainstream society appreciates the real fear that people of color harbor toward police, the dialogue will be fruitless. The quickening heart rate that comes whenever an officer pulls you over, the demands that your children not wear hoodies or play with toy guns because the larger society fears them and that such actions might be an invitation to harm, and the ever-present reality that the people it deputizes to serve and protect often internalize that fear, is real. Yes, Black Lives Matter.
Until we are ready to deal with the full meaning of this language, we fight a losing battle. Our nation can no longer afford to function as two societies, separate and unequal, deeply divided, and policed by the racially insensitive Thin Blue Line. We must find a way to be inclusive and to make real in all aspects of our society and culture a deep respect for life and liberty regardless of race. This will ultimately do more to help us build bridges to understanding instead of continuing to populate the tombs of indifference with the bodies of unarmed men and boys of color.