Within the last 36 hours, there has been widespread reaction to the decision by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill , to order the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo on grounds of violating department rules against employing a chokehold which led directly to the death of Eric Garner in 2014.
To recap that event. On July 17, 2014, a large contingent of NYPD officers from the 120th Precinct approached a man on Bay Street– a business district in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of the borough of Staten Island. The call was in response to a report that the individual was believed to be selling “loosies” – unpackaged single cigarettes from packages not carrying tax stamps, which was forbidden according to a New York City ordinance.
The suspect was Eric Garner, 43 year old father of six. What followed the initial contact is depicted in this video which was seen in every news report of the incident at the time:
O’Neill’s comments in the announcement of Pantaleo’s firing are revealing of the underlying sentiment of law enforcement and public authorities in New York City:
“A man with a family lost his life—and that is an irreversible tragedy. And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man who took this job to do good—to make a difference in his home community—has now lost his chosen career. And that is a different kind of tragedy.”
It’s not that much of a reach to compare this non complex equivalence to Donald Trump’s comment on the Charlottesville incident, that there were “good people on both sides”.
What is not stated, yet implied by O’Neill, is that the “man with a family” (Garner), is essentially immaterial, expendable, but that the unavoidable decision to have to dismiss the “hardworking police officer with a family”, is the real matter of regret – the genuine loss.
O’Neill then goes on to pose a question and submit his answer. “What have we learned from this case? What I learned is we wouldn’t let this linger for five years, it’s too long. It’s unfair to the family, it’s unfair to everybody involved in this case.”
Again, an equivalence. The “everybody involved in this case” is essentially Daniel Pantaleo and his supporters, whom, in the view – broadly speaking – of the police command structure and rank and file, is the unfortunate political human sacrifice to public sentiment. Commissioner O’Neill can’t actually say this, but Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who has opposed any consequences for Pantaleo during the entire 5 year run of this travesty against Garner’s family, can and does.
Whereas Eric Garner pleaded to Pantaleo and the rest of the contingent that piled on top of him, that “I can’t breathe” several times before he died, Lynch said following O’Neill’s order to terminate Pantaleo, “We’re in distress,” during a lower Manhattan news conference that followed O’Neill’s long-awaited announcement.
“Our police officers are in distress — not because they have a difficult job, not because they put themselves in danger, but because they realize they are abandoned. The captain has jumped ship. The mayor has told him to do it, and the streets are falling into chaos.”
Missing entirely from this melodramatic narrative is an acknowledgment of the distress Eric Garner experienced before Pantaleo and the gang of thugs with badges killed him, or the distress of Garner’s family when they learned that their loved one was executed in the street by a judge and jury of cops for an alleged misdemeanor offense.
Also not worthy of any reflection, in the estimation of O’Neill and Lynch, or the system they preside over, is the suffering of Garner’s family; his widow, Esaw, his eldest daughter Erica (who died of a heart attack in 2017), daughter Emerald, his four other children, his mother Gwen Carr and stepfather, Ben, as they have waited and waited for justice and have repeatedly had it stolen from them.
Pantaleo, still in possible jeopardy of a federal civil rights prosecution, despite his acquittal by a Staten Island Grand Jury, issued a public relations based statement at the behest of his legal counsel, to Garner’s family. “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”
Garner’s widow, Esaw, replied at the time, “Hell, no! The time for remorse would have been when my husband was yelling to breathe. No, I don’t accept his apology. No, I could care less about his condolences … He’s still working. He’s still getting a paycheck. He’s still feeding his kids, when my husband is six feet under and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now.”
Eric Garner’s killing was a patently clear case of excessive force – among many in America today, and by no means exclusive to one racial group or another, as Erica Garner told CNN’s Don Lemon in 2014, “I can’t really say it’s a black and white issue. It’s about the police officer and abusing their power.”
I’ve heard from people who condone what they witnessed on the video from the bystander’s phone. They say that the police were just doing their job and that Garner was ultimately responsible for his own death.
That was the viewpoint of New York’s largest police union, typical of police unions nationwide, who can be dependably relied on, to – in all situations, defend excessive force and police behavior that in any other context would be obvious felony assault and battery. “We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”
There are a few problems with that, but the first I would pose to you would be that once law enforcement can toss our Constitutional system of protections against misuse of authority to the curb, and act as judge, jury and executioner of a citizen in the space of less than a minute or two, we’re not America anymore.
We’re not Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia – or name any tyranny past or present, you wish – but not quite America – that “shining city on a hill” of Reagan’s farewell address.
Did Eric Garner “make a choice” that day to die from a violent police mob attack?
Street protests in NYC after the Staten Island Grand Jury acquitted Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.
Some things have changed since Garner’s death 5 years ago and many things remain the same. The same part, is evidenced by the travesty of the failure of the grand jury to return an indictment – an obvious result, given the fact that NYC’s medical examiner ruled that Garner died of a “chokehold and compressions to the chest” and concluded that Garner was a victim of “homicide”.
It’s also clear given Attorney General William Barr’s refusal to charge Pantaleo under federal civil rights statutes, Commissioner O’Neill’s half hearted dismissal of Pantaleo and Pat Lynch’s extortionary threats of a city wide officer “slow down” based on his claims that officers can’t perform their jobs without including chokeholds and other aggressive tactics in their toolbox of force escalation.
What has changed, however, is that conservatives – at least what used to be known as such, until traditional conservatism’s hostile takeover by Trumpism – no longer have a voice on police brutality, extrajudicial killings and excessive force.
It wasn’t always true. Back in late 2014, writing about the epic failure of the Staten Island Grand Jury to return an indictment, I featured the comments of some notable conservatives in reaction to the killing of Garner.
Fox News syndicated columnist and contributor, the late Charles Krauthammer and I seldom shared an entirely common perspective, but I was pleasantly surprised when Krauthammer opined that the grand jury’s decision to not indict was “totally incomprehensible. “I think anybody who looks at the video would think this was the wrong judgment.”
Russell D. Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (who is now persona non grata with evangelicals because he won’t turn a blind eye to Donald Trump’s indecency), said at the time on a podcast, that “there is no excuse that I can think of for choking a man to death for selling illegal cigarettes. We have it on video with the man pleading for his life.”
“The grand jury’s decision not to bring any charges against the officer who killed Garner is inexplicable. It defies reason. It makes no sense,” wrote Sean Davis at The Federalist. “Unlike the Michael Brown case, we don’t have to rely on shaky and unreliable testimony from so-called eyewitnesses”, Davis said. “We don’t need to review bullet trajectories or forensics. All we have to do is watch the video and believe our own eyes.”
Also referring to the clearly biased motivation of the grand jury to decline any kind of charges, even manslaughter, against Pantaleo, was Andrew P. Napolitano, the former judge and longtime Fox News analyst, “This is not Ferguson, Missouri. This is not somebody wrestling for your gun. This is not where you shoot or be shot at. This is choking to death a person whose only crime was selling cigarettes without collecting taxes on them. This does not call for deadly force by any stretch of the imagination.”
Aside from conservatives, former law enforcement veterans, weighed in. Frank Serpico, an ex NYPD Detective, now police watchdog / social activist and the subject of an epic 1973 movie about police corruption starring Al Pacino – commented on the death of Eric Garner:
Was I surprised by the Staten Island grand jury? Of course not. When was the last time a police officer was indicted? This is the use of excessive force for no apparent reason on a guy who is selling “loosie” cigarettes; what is the threat to your well-being? If a police officer’s life is in danger, he has every right to use every force in his means to defend himself. But today, we have cops crying wolf all the time. They testify “I was in fear of my life,” the grand jury buys it, the DA winks and nods, and there’s no indictment.
Now, even though all the preceding voices still maintain their views on this case, the only voices currently calling foul on this abortion of justice are Democrats. Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D, NY), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters that the decision to terminate Pantaleo, shouldn’t have taken so long. “Firing him was the right thing to do, but it should not have taken so many years for such a limited measure of justice.”
By “limited measure of justice”, Nadler is referring to the absurdly contradictory conclusions of NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Trials, Rosemarie Maldonado.
Judge Maldonado, in her ruling of whether Pantaleo should be fired, stated on one hand, that, “respondents egregious misconduct led to the deadly consequences his training anticipated and which the prohibition was designed to prevent”, and further determined that, Pantaleo’s behavior exhibited a “glaring dereliction of responsibility that precipitated a tragic outcome”, to which she added that Pantaleo’s testimony to investigators was “untruthful” and “self-serving”.
Maldonado alluded to the act as constituting a felony, when she opined that, Garner’s suffering was confirmed, when Garner, on his side with his left arm behind his back and his right hand still open and out, coughed and grimaced as Mr Pantaleo maintained his grip. This demonstrated, in her view that in that instant, the officer’s conduct “escalated from a Patrol Guide violation to criminal recklessness.”
But despite what all that points to, Maldonado contravened her own findings in concluding that “even though (Pantaleo) recklessly used a prohibited chokehold, the evidence was insufficient to prove that he did it with the intent of obstructing Mr. Garner’s breathing.”
It doesn’t require much of a stretch of the imagination to presume that the Staten Island Grand Jury was, in the majority, composed of individuals who would later find Donald Trump’s emphasis on demonizing minorities and giving a blank check to police to mistreat and brutalize suspects, compelling reasons to vote for him.
That’s where we are now. Daniel Pantaleo’s firing was a matter of expediency. The institutional racism and blind eye to police violence against civilians could not mandate Pantaleo be charged with murder or even the low hanging fruit of manslaughter, but the firing was assessed to be the safest course of action to pour cold water on the controversy.
Certainly, from the police union corner, there will be more smoke, with PBA President Pat Lynch directing comments to Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill that the “job of being a police officer is dead”, and that O’Neill “ran to the corner with the loudest crowd.” Pantaleo’s attorney Stuart London, who will be filing an appeal to Pantaleo’s firing, said of Pantaleo’s reaction to the firing decision, that “Obviously he is disappointed, upset. But he has a lot of strength.”
While Pantaleo will probably be hired as a bartender and introduced to patrons as “the cop that did that (fill in the blank the racial slur beginning with an “n”) down in Staten Island”, Garner’s family will need a lot more strength to endure the lifelong results of Pantaleo’s behavior.
Even so, Garner’s daughter Emerald committed herself to the long term objective of changing the culture of law enforcement and its interactions with civilians:
“I don’t even want to see another video of a person being choked out. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen to him. It’s not supposed to happen. I should not be here standing with my brother, fatherless. I should be standing here with my father. But Pantaleo took that away from me on 7/17. Yes, he’s fired. But the fight is not over. We will continue to fight.”
Despite Garner’s death, literally at the hands of police – being only one of what are now countless examples of unjustified deadly violence against blacks in America, it’s not quite that simple. Police injure, maim and kill more white Americans than they do minorities, although this fact is not viewed as sensationally as those with a racial component.
Although the most recent tally of raw numbers from 2015 – 495 whites killed by police and 258 blacks; it is also statistically more likely that blacks will die in encounters with police officers (of any ethnicity) than will any other racial component of society, as evidenced by this data:
The Eric Garners’ of America are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” in terms of your risk of being the victim of police misconduct, no matter what your racial or ethnic identity.
Whether the experiences of urban Blacks have any profound impact on your views, the acceleration of incidents of excessive force should be viewed with concern and sober vigilance even if you are not a person of color.