Another unarmed black man dies after a confrontation with a white police officer. Another grand jury weighs the evidence, then decides not to indict the officer. Another round of protesters hit the streets, believing that a man, a family, was deprived of justice because of the color of a man’s skin.
This isn’t Ferguson, Missouri. It’s New York City.
And, just as the circumstances were similar, the news Wednesday that New York police Officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted in the July 17 death of Eric Garner set off many of the same visceral reactions seen when a St. Louis County grand jury decided last week against charging then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death.
As with Wilson, there were those who defended Pantaleo, saying he was simply trying to do his job and arrest a man who was resisting him and other officers.
There were also many who decried the lack of charges. They pointed out that video showed Garner had his hands up — just like Brown, some witnesses claimed — when officers approached him on a Staten Island sidewalk. It showed him crying out, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” as he was pulled to the ground.
And, to some, the whole incident showed how African-Americans are treated differently in the eyes of the law.
“People are enraged, people are losing faith in the justice system because they are seeing it with their own eyes,” filmmaker Spike Lee told CNN. “… Hope is not working. It doesn’t look like hope has been part of the grand jury … in Ferguson and Staten Island.”
That rage was on display Wednesday night in New York City, in protests that were emotional yet notably without the looting and violence seen in Ferguson. And it wasn’t just New York, as the same feelings reverberated on streets of other cities and in living rooms around the United States.
After speaking with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and praising that city’s residents for “being constructive,” President Barack Obama talked Thursday about the importance of “making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.”
“(U.S. leaders have) started taking some concrete steps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color,” Obama said. “I intend to take more steps with leaders like (de Blasio) in the months ahead.”
Mayor: ‘We must work to make this right’
Daniel Pantaleo may not stand trial in Garner’s death, but he’s not off the hook.
Under Attorney General Eric Holder’s direction, the U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights probe into the case.
The New York Police Department is taking a fresh look at the case as well, escalating its internal investigation of Garner’s death by interviewing more officers. Even if it’s not illegal criminally, the city’s police department patrol guide states its officers “will not use chokeholds,” which it defines as any action pressuring the throat or windpipe.
“Whenever it becomes necessary to take a violent or resisting subject into custody, responding officers should utilize appropriate tactics in a coordinated effort to overcome resistance,” the patrol guide adds.
Once this investigation is finished, it’s possible that a negotiated settlement will be reached after that probe is complete, or that there will be a department trial.
“If there’s a finding of guilt, a decision will be made as to an appropriate penalty or discipline for that,” said Commissioner William Bratton, who would decide on the final punishment.
As to the grand jury proceedings, a Staten Island judge is expected to rule Thursday about whether to release some of the evidence presented to jurors, court spokeswoman Arlene Hackel said. This comes a day after the Staten Island District Attorney filed a motion asking for such a release, given the public interest in the case.
New York’s mayor released a letter Thursday outlining his city’s plans to address concerns, saying “frustration is understandable (when) centuries of racism precede us.” He pointed to the curtailment of the NYPD’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” approach to citizens, plus efforts to “reduce the use of excessive force” and put body cameras on police officers.
“Together, we must work to make this right, to work for justice and to build the kind of city and the kind of country we need to be,” de Blasio said. “And we will.”
Protesters hit the streets of New York
The city may also find itself dealing with more protests, like those that rocked its streets Wednesday night.
Demonstrators filled the streets and sidewalks of Times Square, chanting Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — in unison.
“We want to be where we feel our message will be most effective,” a protest organizer said.
On their way through town, they combed neighborhoods to pick up sympathizers who joined them. Lee, taking part with his son, noted that the crowd was diverse.
“This has nothing to do with black and white,” he said. “This is New Yorkers together.”
Battalions of police watching the protesters wore no riot gear and refrained from the show of armored vehicles and assault rifles that appeared in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Officers — on the lookout for people trying to block traffic for long periods of time — ended up arresting 83 people. Yet Bratton pointed out there was no violence, no vandalism, no looting.
This was no accident. Garner’s family wanted it that way, with father Ben Carr telling a crowd outside the store where his son gasped in the chokehold, “We ain’t tearing up nothing. We ain’t burning up nothing… The police is our problem. No violence. That is all I ask.”
Similiar pleas for no violence from the parents of Michael Brown went unheeded, mainly in Ferguson.
“We want justice for Eric,” Carr said. He was hopeful about the federal investigation into his son’s death.
Garner’s family angry, calls for justice
So who was Eric Garner? Before his death at the age of 43, he was a father of six, as well as a grandfather.
He was also someone with a history of run-ins with the law, including 30 arrests. When police confronted him in July, they suspected that he was illegally selling untaxed cigarettes — something for which he had previously been arrested.
Yet his family, and their supporters, can’t understand how anyone could think officers’ actions that day were justified.
“They are struggling,” said Jonathan Moore, a lawyer for the family. “It’s been a difficult four months.”
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, couldn’t understand how the grand jury — which was of mixed race and heard from dozens of police and civilian witnesses between September 29 and December 3 — could decide there wasn’t “probable cause” for an indictment after seeing the widely dispersed video.
And his widow, Esaw Garner, was angry that “somebody that gets paid to do right did wrong” and was not held accountable for it.
“But my husband’s death will not be in vain. As long as I have a breath in my body I will fight the fight ’til the end,” she added.
Police union says officer just tried to tackle Garner
Pantaleo offered his condolences to Garner’s family in a statement.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said. “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
In addition to the internal investigation, Pantaleo has been the subject of two other lawsuits. In both, the plaintiffs allege false arrest, unlawful imprisonment, civil rights violations and other charges.
One suit from 2013 was dismissed in January 2014, while the second, from February 2014, remains open.
Speaking specifically about the Garner case, Bratton said he understood people’s anger over the scenes on the video, but that he also trusted the legal process and the grand jury’s judgment in spite of the images.
“As much as we think video is the final determinant, it is not,” he said. The grand jury saw much more evidence and argument than the public or he have seen, he said.
Pantaleo’s police union also defended his tackle, with Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch saying “it is clear that the officer’s intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the takedown technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused.”
“No police officer starts a shift intending to take another human being’s life,” Lynch said.