July 17, 2014: The Police Murder of Unarmed Eric Garner


WHAT HAPPENED?


Now that I have shifted the ~branding~ of this website and associated Instagram page to a true crime page, I want to preface this article with a note that in my mind, I separate true crime and police brutality. Unsolved disappearances, serial killers and fascinating, but horrifying, murders are often glorified as the true crime industry booms and fascination and interest in these insane crimes grows. However, while I never want my fascination and writing about true crime to come across as insensitive in any way, I especially want to note this when talking about the horrifying topic of police brutality and murder.


This website is primarily true crime, yes, but I will still write about stories that continue to need to be told, some that may not fall into that category. This is one of those. True crime stories are fascinating because of unknown, or horrific motives, mystery and the unknown. Police brutality and racism in America aren't mysteries and aren't worth fascination. We know why they do it. Anyway, I just didn't want you to click on this story from a True Crime-focused website and believe this fits into that category. This is just a story that needs to be told.


Okay.


On July 17, 2014, 6 years ago today, Eric Garner was murdered by the New York City Police Department when he was put into a (banned) chokehold. The altercation and subsequent murder were caught on video, and it quickly received widespread media attention and sparked conversations about police brutality.


The NYPD had approached Eric for the heinous crime of potentially selling cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. He said he was tired of being harassed by the police and said he was not selling cigarettes. After that, police tried to arrest him. When an officer placed his hands on Eric, he pulled his arms away. Then, the same officer placed his arm around Eric's neck and pinned him to the ground, along with other officers.


11 times, Eric Garner repeated the words "I can't breathe" while face down on the sidewalk. He lost consciousness, and died at the hospital 1 hour later.


His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. Though asthma, heart disease and obesity were cited as contributing factors, the ME concluded that the cause of death was the choke hold on his neck and chest during the physical restraint. Despite this, no charges were brought against the officer involved. He was eventually fired in 2019, over 5 years after he murdered an innocent man.


Eric Garner's case became a focal point for the fight against police brutality and racism in the police force, and America as a whole. At least 50 demonstrations were held nationwide in the months following his death, and hundreds more against police brutality in general were sparked, using Eric as the main focus.

THOSE INVOLVED


Eric Garner was born on September 15, 1970. Before he quit due to health reasons, he was a horticulturist at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. He was married to a woman named Esaw, and was described by his friends as a peacemaking, generous man. He had 6 children, including a 3-month-old baby, and 3 grandchildren.


Since 1980, Eric had been arrested by the NYPD more than 30 times on assault charges, grand larceny charges, and resisting arrest. Many of the arrests had been for his alleged sales of unlicensed cigarettes. Eric had filed a handwritten complaint in 2007 against a police officer for conducting a cavity search of him in the middle of the street while people walked by.


At the time of his death, he was out on bail for alleged sales of untaxed cigarettes (though it does not appear this was ever proven), driving without a license, marijuana possession, and false impersonation. And, last I checked, the punishment for those crimes is not execution.


Daniel Pantaleo was a 29-year-old NYPD officer at the time that he murdered Eric Garner. He joined the police force in 2006 after receiving a high school diploma and college bachelor's degree. He had 2 civil lawsuits against him in 2013, the year before he would commit murder, where he was accused of falsely arresting and abusing people in custody.


In one of those cases, he and another officer were accused of ordering 2 black men to strip naked on the street for a search.


Ramsey Orta is another important name in this story. He is a member of Copwatch, and was the one who had filmed the incident. He was arrested on various drug and weapons charges later on, but the most important thing is that he was the one who filmed the viral video.

THE MURDER OF ERIC GARNER


At 3:30 PM on July 14, 2014, Eric Garner was approached by an officer, Justin D'Amico, in plainclothes. They were in front of a beauty supply store in Staten Island. According to witnesses and bystanders in the area, Eric had just broken up a fight, which may have been what attracted the officer's attention. They confronted him for selling "loosies", which he had been arrested for many times before.


The video recording began around this time. Eric can be heard saying the following.


Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today. Why would you? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn't do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me [unknown] selling cigarettes. I'm minding my business, officer, I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.


Obviously, after so many arrests for something that they had yet to actually prove, he was frustrated and defeated from so many run-ins with the police. But despite his calm request to be left alone, and no proof of any crime being committed, Pantaleo approached Eric from behind to handcuff him. Eric pulled his arms away, saying, "don't touch me, please."


And apparently, that was justification for cold blooded murder.


Pantaleo put his arm around Eric's neck, pulled him backward, and slammed him into a glass window. Eric went down to his knees, and then 3 uniformed and 2 plainclothes officers rushed over and surrounded him. 15 seconds later, Pantaleo moved his arm from around Eric's neck, but shoved his face into the sidewalk, and then put him back into the choke hold. He is heard saying "I can't breathe" 11 times while lying face down, while 5 other officers witnessed and did not intercede.


A police sergeant called an ambulance reporting that Eric was having trouble breathing, but added that he didn't seem to be in serious condition. For a few minutes before the ambulance arrived, he laid motionless, handcuffed and unresponsive. He laid on the sidewalk for 7 minutes. EMTs did not place him on oxygen or administer any medical aid when they arrived. He was transported to the hospital, where he died 1 hour later.


Pantaleo was put on desk duty immediately after and stripped of his gun and badge, and 4 of the paramedics and EMTs were suspended.


On August 1, a few weeks later, Eric's death was ruled a homicide, claiming the intentional actions of the officers was the cause of death. The choke hold was the primary cause of death. An independent autopsy resulted in the same findings, agreeing compression of the neck was the primary cause of death.


On September 29, the case was heard by a Grand Jury. On November 21, Pantaleo testified before the grand jury, but 2 months later, the jury decided not to indict him on any charges.

AFTERMATH


After the decision not to indict Pantaleo was announced, New York City and San Francisco citizens gathered en mass to protest, demonstrate, rally and speak out against the police brutality and lack of justice in the case. Thousands in other cities including Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Minneapolis and Atlanta joined in the following days. Many protestors throughout the nation were arrested for disorderly conduct or refusal to clear the streets.


"I can't breathe" became a slogan and chant for Black Lives Matter protests and rallies around the world, and in a horrific case of deja-vu, continue to after yet another black man was suffocated at the hands of police this year.


Counter protests were launched in support of the NYPD and the grand jury decision, chanting or wearing slogans like "I can breath, thanks to the NYPD" (okay, great, but Eric Garner couldn't), Blue Lives Matter (again, they weren't killed in broad daylight) and Don't Resist Arrest (a crime that's punishment is not strangulation.)


An extensive review of the NYPD's training procedures was ordered by New York police commissioner William Bratton, specifically regarding use of force. However, the re-training efforts were described as "a waste of time". Patrick Lynch, the leader of the police union Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, argued that Eric's death was a result of resisting arrest and a lack of respect for law enforcement. I'm sorry. What? Resisting arrest is illegal, yes, but unless you are resisting arrest by waving a gun in their face or something, you shouldn't be killed for it. And lack of respect? You do not legally have to respect police officers in any way, shape, or form, and if you choose not to, your punishment SHOULD. NOT. BE. MURDER.


Police officers jumped into the controversy, with one in Indiana selling T-shirts that said "Breathe Easy. Don't break the law." Uh, again guys, you don't get murdered for breaking the law. And being suspected of selling single cigarettes and then pulling your arms back when attempting to be handcuffed is not really cause for being choked while telling officers 11 times that you can't breathe. A San Jose police officer tweeted "Threaten me or my family and I will use by God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter". Okay buddy, Eric threatened nobody's family and also you do not have the God given, or law appointed, right to kill innocent people.


Eric's daughter Erica believed that pride, more than racism, was the reason her father was killed. She held a vigil and a die-in in memory of her father, and vowed to continue to lead protests where her father was killed. She passed away in 2007 after a heart attack at age 27.


Eric's widow, Esaw, said she did not accept the condolences from Pantaleo, saying the time to have remorse was while her husband was yelling at him that he couldn't breathe. She was angry that he was "sorry", yet continued to work and get paid while her husband was dead and she struggled to feed her children.


Politicians got involved in the conversation, with most agreeing that his death was a tragedy and obvious evidence of an issue within American police forces. Barack Obama said that the verdict was an American problem, and George W. Bush expressed that he was sad and did not understand the grand jury outcome. A republican representative, Peter King, argued that if he wouldn't have had asthma or been overweight, he would have lived. (But, he did. And he didn't. And he also would have lived if he hadn't been suffocated.)


Professional and college athletes wore T-shirts with the quote "I can't breathe" during warmups, to the applause of some people and the horror of other, more terrible people. Celebrities around the country and world expressed their thoughts and condolences on the incident.


Eric's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit and received a $5.9 million out-of-court settlement. His widow had previously rejected a $5 million settlement offer.


In 2019, Pantaleo was fired from the NYPD for unrelated reasons.


"I Can't Breathe" has been used as a slogan for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality since Eric Garner was so tragically killed 6 years ago today. And it isn't going to stop any time soon, when just this year, George Floyd was killed in such a similar way. Suspected of committing a crime, an arrest for really no reason, and a knee to his neck while others stood around, as he begged them to stop, claiming "I Can't Breathe".


6 years later, we can see how far we have come, and also how very far we have still to go. The country was divided much more after the death of Eric Garner. He was resisting arrest, he had a criminal record, he had pre-existing conditions that lead to his death, he didn't respect the police, he was committing a crime, people argued. In other words, he deserved to die.


Pulling his arms back when the officer tried to handcuff him was apparently such a heinous crime, such a danger to the 6 police officers present, that he had to be suffocated on the sidewalk until he died. Don't resist arrest and you won't get killed, they said.


Being arrested for assault, grand larceny, drug possession, and resisting arrest makes him a bad person. Don't be a criminal and you won't get killed, they said.


He had asthma and heart conditions and was obese. If he didn't have those, he'd be alive, and so it is his own fault... despite the fact that he was living just fine with those. It was the arm to his neck that ended his life. But don't be unhealthy and you won't get killed, they said.


He was disrespectful to the police, apparently, when he asked them to leave him alone for not committing any crime. Be kind to the police and you won't get killed, they said.


And more than anything, citizens, politicians and police officers alike argued that if you don't commit crimes, you won't get killed. Stay out of the police's way, and you won't get killed. If you don't realize the problem with people believing that avoiding the police at all costs is the only way to safely avoid murder at the hands of police, you are a part of the problem.


Celebrities wore I Can't Breathe shirts and people made fun of them and refused to watch their teams. People counter-protested and made shirts using Eric's last words to explain everything he did wrong that lead to the end of his life. The nation was completely divided into 2 distinct buckets: He shouldn't have been killed, and he deserved it.


While those 2 distinct buckets still exist, I think the "he shouldn't have been killed" bucket is starting to fill up a bit more. Despite the circumstances being nearly identical, 6 years later, less people believed that the man who may have used a counterfeit $20 being killed in broad daylight deserved it. And while many refuse to still understand the issues within the police force, the racism rampant in the U.S. and the further story that George Floyd's murder tells, at least the majority of Americans condemn what happened.


But it is cold comfort. Because those people still #BackTheBlue and argue that 99.9% of cops are good, not understanding that the very existence of the police force is part of the problem. They'll post black squares, or kind of post about being sad about his death while also condemning looting, but will still vote for Trump and agree with the bananas budgets provided to police. I guess it is hard to say we've come a long way when the only real difference is a few more people don't think he should have died.


But in 6 years of more police murders of black men and women than can be counted, the loud, vocal fighters have gotten louder and more vocal. They are outraged. We are outraged. And the fight, and results, are stronger than ever before. 6 years later, the police still killed a man in nearly the same exact way, but we refuse to be silent.


Change will be made, and the death of Eric Garner was another tragic loss that fuels the fire within those who want to make lasting, positive change to this world for black Americans.

REFERENCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Eric_Garner


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