Two years have now elapsed since New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death for the apparently egregious crime of selling loose cigarettes — but the only one facing any punishment for what many believe to be a cold-blooded murder is the man who filmed it.
“I can’t breathe,” Garner pleaded eleven times — caught on film by Ramsey Orta — though Pantaleo refused to release his grip on the man’s neck.
Garner’s plea for his life became the rallying call of Black Lives Matter and police brutality activists across the nation and around the world — though the inhumanity of having to beg for one’s life after committing a nonviolent, victimless crime remains sadly all-too-common.
But though news of violent and deadly acts committed by police top headlines with alarming frequency, the fact Pantaleo used his bare hands to strangle the life from Garner was a startling departure from shootings that typify brutal policing. So personal is choking a man to death, even ordinary Americans were suddenly forced to question what, exactly, happened to the romanticized image of friendly neighborhood police from mere decades ago.
Defying all reason, Pantaleo remains on the force — having faced no penalty for killing a nonviolent man who committed a crime under only the strictest legal definition of the term. And Orta, who filmed the gang of police protecting Pantaleo’s actions, preventing anyone from stepping in to allow Garner to breathe, has just accepted a plea deal for four years on unrelated charges.
Orta claims he’s been constantly harassed by the cops and repeatedly arrested since that day — almost certainly retaliation for exposing the brutal incident to the world.
Though a local investigation did not result in any indictments — another cynical typicality in the vein of ‘we investigated ourselves and found we did nothing wrong’ — a federal probe hasn’t made any headway, either, reportedly due to infighting between the New York and Washington segments of the Justice Department.
“I feel like they’re dragging their feet,” lamented Garner’s widow, Esaw, reported the New York Daily News. “The evidence is there. Either you’re going to prosecute or you’re not. They say, ‘We don’t want to leave any stones unturned.’ How many stones are there after two years?”
Last July, Garner’s family received a $5.9 million settlement with New York City, courtesy of the taxpayers — marking another aspect of how police brutalize citizens with virtual impunity as they aren’t required to carry liability insurance even for the gravest of wrongdoings.
Erica Garner, the victim’s daughter, has become a tireless advocate against violent policing, though as she explained in a recent interview, “it’s like we keep having a conversation I exhausted for two years. And, you know, how much talking do we need to have?”
While Orta has effectively been censored after the fact by facing a four-year stint behind bars, Erica also faced censorship by omission recently.
After ABC News promised her a chance to question President Obama at a town hall event on Thursday, the outlet simply didn’t follow through.
“I was railroaded!” she could be heard yelling, according to the pool report from the event. “I was railroaded by ABC on the two-year anniversary of my father’s death!”
“They are liars,” she was overheard on the tape, according to CNN. “They got us all the way down here.”
Though Garner met with Obama briefly following the event, it hardly quelled her ire toward ABC.
“This town hall that presidential town hall #abc arranged is a farce. It was nothing short of full exploitation of Black pain and grief,” she tweeted. “They lied to me and my family to get us to travel to DC to participate. Taking time away from things I had planned to remember my father.”
Appallingly — two years after Pantaleo slipped his arm around Eric Garner, pulled him to the ground, and strangled the last breath from his body — countless other murders of black men and others by police have distanced much of the public-at-large from the horror.
“I’m feeling really, really pessimistic about the outcome” of the DOJ investigation, Esaw said. “Now they’re taking on other cases and it’s like Eric’s case gets pushed under the rug, and they’re hoping that we go away and forget about it. But that’s not going to happen.”
Indeed, public ire reached a fever pitch recently following yet two more controversial police killings. Now the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been forced to deal with the pain endured by Garner’s loved ones for the past two years.
And still no effective reforms have changed policing in America. Still, the cops beat, kick, punch, shove, brutalize, and kill Americans with disquieting frequency. Still, black Americans are forced to demand their lives matter, too. Still, activists and journalists face arrest and further violence from battle-ready militarized police when outrage spawns protests on a national scale.
Deplorable police brutality and violence — and their impunity in committing obvious crimes — have stifled this nation in every conceivable way.
We — as a nation, tragically echoing Eric Garner — can’t breathe.