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If, as lawyerly wisdom has it, a willing New York prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, what happened in the case of Eric Garner? Recorded on a friend’s cellphone, Garner’s was the chokehold seen round the world. His fatal encounter on July 17, 2014 with the Staten Island police spurred massive protests. But in Matt Taibbi’s unsparing appraisal, it did nothing to change police practices — or to bend history’s arc toward justice.
Taibbi, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of several previous books, tells Garner’s story from multiple perspectives, including those of wife Esaw Snipes, daughter Erica, political activist Carmen Perez, and Ramsey Orta, who shot the video. Asthmatic since childhood, Garner weighed around 350 pounds and suffered from diabetes. At his death, he was 43, a former drug dealer attempting to earn a living hustling untaxed cigarettes to support his family. With limited skills and a prison record, he was unable to find legitimate work that paid as well.
The position he customarily took up in front of a beauty-supply store on Staten Island’s Bay Street kept him on his feet for hours. His fondest wish, his family would say later, “was to someday sit down at work.’’ As it was, this imposing, poorly dressed black man stood not just literally in the wrong place — near a new upscale condominium complex — but amid social crosscurrents all but designed to destroy him.
Among Taibbi’s vividly-drawn cast of characters is George Kelling, a well-intentioned Minnesota corrections official who became a chief architect of the “Broken Windows” theory of fighting crime. Kelling’s insight was that responding to small infractions creates order, thereby lessening fear. Taibbi’s insight is that Kelling’s idea ignores the nation’s troubled racial history. In New York City, Broken Windows emboldened police officers to strip-search and otherwise harass people in minority neighborhoods, in what became known as “stop-and-frisk.” Under pressure from Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to rack up arrests, officers would stop people frequently, for reasons often invented later.
By 2014, Garner’s drug-dealing years were well behind him. But the police were bothering him more. Selling contraband “loosies” may have been relatively benign, but Garner represented a quality of life problem in a gentrifying neighborhood.He also represented an easy arrest.
Shortly before the fatal confrontation, Garner broke up a fight in nearby Tompkinsville Park. He then returned to his usual spot. Bystanders expressed doubt that he could have been selling anything at the moment two officers moved in to arrest him. Garner protested. “Every time you see me, you mess with me,’’ he said. “It stops today.’’ One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, applied a crushing hold that brought him to the ground.
Once his friend’s video went viral, Garner’s apparent last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement. At a press conference, Bratton essentially conceded that an illegal chokehold had been applied. A month later, the medical examiner, citing Pantaleo’s hold as a factor, declared Garner’s death a homicide.
Yet, in keeping with past practice, the official response slowed to a crawl. District Attorney Dan Donovan presented an unusual amount of evidence to a special grand jury, bringing in dozens of witnesses. Unaccountably, roughly six months after Garner’s death, it voted not to indict.
Later, concerted attempts to pry open the secret grand jury record were turned back by a Staten Island judge. Efforts to obtain Pantaleo’s record also hit a wall until last March when leaked information showed 14 complaints had been lodged against him — statistically, enough, Taibbi writes, to suggest a problem cop. Pantaleo remains on the force today.
Taibbi’s polemical style (including a screed against President Trump) occasionally weakens a story that speaks eloquently for itself. Although Garner’s family received a $5.9 million settlement from the city, some members continue to seek action against Pantaleo.
Omitted from Taibbi’s account is a federal civil-rights investigation launched in 2016 (stalled, perhaps, but still on-going). And, though Taibbi portrays it as largely ineffectual, the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board recently recommended the stiffest departmental charges, including possible firing, against Pantaleo.
Last month, a court-appointed monitor asked a judge to reinforce a new police evaluation system meant to de-emphasize the number of stops officers make. (The department’s stop-and-frisk practices were found unconstitutional in 2013, but Taibbi maintains that little changed.)
The best hope, paradoxically, may be the sheer number of police-brutality episodes captured on video over the past few years. More Americans are rethinking their inclination to give police the benefit of the doubt. Taibbi would surely argue that, if a turning point exists, it remains on a far distant horizon. Readers who come to the end of this impassioned, deeply pessimistic account will understand why.
I CAN’T BREATHE:
A Killing on Bay Street
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel and Grau, 322 pp., $28
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