Apr 2, 2018
On July 27, 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner died after New York cop Daniel Pantaleo took him to the ground with an illegal chokehold. The video of this killing was seen around the world. In I Can’t Breathe, Matt Taibbi shows how both Garner and Pantaleo wound up on that street, and why their encounter led to Garner’s murder. He also shows how New York defends and maintains a policy that produces brutality and murder by the police.
Through interviews with Garner’s family, Taibbi shows him as a real person, not a hero or a villain, and certainly not just a victim. Garner was a big man – his friends reported that he would sometimes take a whole pizza, fold it in half, and eat it like a sandwich. He also put all his money into his kids, and wouldn’t even buy himself new sneakers or clothes until his old ones were falling off of him. Supporting his family was what drove him – first to sell drugs, then, after he spent time in prison, to sell loose cigarettes as a seemingly safer option.
But there was a reason Pantaleo attacked Garner – a policy called “broken windows” policing. The idea actually came from a social worker’s experience in a group home, where insisting on cleaning up and some basic rules helped kids. It became the reasonable idea that neighborhoods where broken windows are not fixed will quickly go into decline, but that keeping up small things can help people feel better about where they live.
But in our racist society, this quickly became an excuse to target black men on the streets. These men were themselves the “broken windows.” Police Commissioner William Bratton, hailed as New York’s “supercop,” turned “broken windows” into the infamous “stop and frisk” policy. New York cops stopped “the right people,” meaning black men, especially those who dressed like Garner. They searched them for drugs or any other kind of contraband. They started doing regular strip searches – right on the street, pulling down adults’ pants in public, humiliating them even if they did not arrest them. And they didn’t do this only to young men on the street – police harassed elderly black people coming out of church, and attacked people parked in their own cars.
Especially after expensive new housing went up right across from Tompkins Square Park in Staten Island, where Garner sold his cigarettes, he became a constant target – in part because of his size, and in part because he wore clothes that were falling apart. He was arrested again and again, and the police took any money he had on him, even when he did not have any cigarettes to sell. In fact, the day he was killed, Garner had not even been selling cigarettes – he had just broken up a fight. Like so many others, Garner was caught in a situation where the economic situation drove him to the underground economy, at the same time that a ramped-up policing policy targeted black men on the street – especially enormous black men like Garner.
The second half of Taibbi’s book explores the cover-up that ensued after Garner’s murder. New York needed a cover-up because Ramsey Orta took a cell-phone video of Pantaleo choking Garner to death, as Garner wheezed “I can’t breathe!” It was obvious to everyone who saw the video that Pantaleo had murdered Garner.
Despite this evidence, a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo. While the records of that Grand Jury are sealed, Taibbi makes it clear that the prosecutor, who was supposedly asking for an indictment, instead presented evidence to clear the murdering cop. This whole section reveals clearly how police and prosecutors act together to keep the system sending black men to prison, and to protect police no matter what they do. Taibbi shows the common practice of “testilying,” when cops manufacture evidence to get a conviction – like saying they saw someone “flaunting” their drugs, or that they had their drugs on the center console of their car, visible from the outside – when everyone involved actually knows the police carried out an illegal search.
Taibbi also shows how the supposedly extremely liberal New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, participated in the cover-up from beginning to end, and maintained the policy of “broken windows” policing. De Blasio brought William Bratton back as his police chief – the man responsible for stop and frisk in the first place. He threw activist groups and people like Al Sharpton, who had supported his election, under the bus. And while he made a famous speech about teaching his bi-racial son how to act in front of the police, he also pushed the police to continue all their aggressive strategies. This angered the cops themselves, since they felt like de Blasio was calling them out in public for things he was ordering them to do behind closed doors!
By painting a clear picture of the murder of Eric Garner, I Can’t Breathe provides a chilling indictment of the whole “criminal justice” system and the politicians who maintain it.