Examining the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, from One Police Plaza to Arizona
Five years ago, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in the chokehold that ended Garner’s life. Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” said over and over again while Pantaleo pressed him facedown on the ground and other officers stood by. Those words became emblematic of life-extinguishing police violence against Black men and women and a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Pantaleo remained on the force. He was placed on modified duty. He earned more in overtime the year after Garner’s death than he had the year before. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict him.
Last week finally saw the start of a departmental trial against Pantaleo, who is being prosecuted by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). That step came after possibilities for more far-reaching accountability faded. Even after an internal investigation revealed that Pantaleo had used a banned chokehold on Garner, the NYPD failed to act, citing the federal investigation. The deadline for federal prosecutors to bring charges is fast approaching. And any chance of a state prosecution ended with the grand jury’s non-indictment. The CCRB hearing offers at most, if Pantaleo is found guilty, a recommendation that he be fired. The ultimate decision rests with the police commissioner. [Ashley Southall / New York Times]
Eric Garner’s death and the aftermath threw police violence against Black men and women, and its attendant impunity, into sharp relief. He was not armed when the police arrested him and there was no allegation that he was engaged in an act of violence. He was in Tompkinsville, a heavily policed Staten Island neighborhood, selling “loosies” (untaxed cigarettes). For this, officers held him down to handcuff him. The rapid, violent escalation of force by the police that followed was completely unnecessary and yet so familiar.
The tragedy of Garner’s killing (the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide) continues to reverberate. His daughter, Erica Garner, who fought long and hard for accountability for his death died of a heart attack in 2017, at the age of 27. Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend whose recording brought the circumstances of Garner’s death to public attention, was imprisoned in 2016. At the departmental trial last week, Garner’s mother brought earplugs to the One Police Plaza courtroom so she would not have to hear her son’s cries when the video of his arrest was played. NYPD officers continue to use chokeholds.
On Friday, the day after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president, Mara Gay of the New York Times wrote, “Mayor Bill de Blasio owes the Garner family and the public an explanation.” “Few,” Gay wrote, “have paid a higher price for the city’s refusal to take police abuse seriously than the family of Eric Garner.” [Mara Gay / New York Times]
Meanwhile, across the country, in Arizona, it came to light last week that the state’s Department of Corrections has banned a book that describes the chokehold—the mechanism of Eric Garner’s death—as a metaphor for the violence that surrounds Black men in the United States. [Maria Polletta / Arizona Republic]
That book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” was written by Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor who was a federal prosecutor for a number of years. It was while he was a prosecutor that Butler was accused of assault, arrested, and prosecuted. He had the resources to hire what he described as D.C.’s best criminal defense attorney, and it took a jury less than 10 minutes to find him not guilty. But the experience, including watching a police officer lie on the witness stand, forever altered him. It “made a man out of me,” Butler has said. “It made a black man out of me.” [Oliver Laughland / The Guardian]
The book describes how “there has never, not for one minute in American history, been peace between black people and the police.” Police, Butler wrote, “routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do.” Black men are first constructed in public consciousness as criminals and then laws and policies are designed to “contain and control them.” Butler is also clear that in addition to the policing of Black men, the “chokehold” can be understood as systems of oppression that function against many other groups of people, including Black women.
Butler’s book, first published in 2017, is a wholesale indictment of U.S. society, beyond policing and the legal system. His calls for change are sweeping as well. At the end of the book he calls for prison abolition. “U.S. prisons are built for black men,” he writes, “and black men will be free, literally and figuratively, only when prisons are no more.” At a minimum, he says, the 80 percent of people in prison who are there for anything besides convictions for murder and sex offenses should be set free. [Katheryn Russell-Brown / Washington Post]
It is not surprising that Butler’s book would make Arizona prison officials uncomfortable. But the jump to censorship is as troubling as it is revealing. The ACLU, in a letter sent Thursday, warned that the department’s ban on “Chokehold” is unconstitutional. Emerson Sykes, an ACLU attorney, told KJZZ, a local NPR station: “It’s unconstitutional to ban a book just because prison officials reject its radical policy. Restrictions on reading materials have to be tied to legitimate prison interests, and preventing intellectual exploration or learning is certainly not a legitimate goal of a prison.” [Jimmy Jenkins / KJZZ]
The ACLU’s attorneys were careful to note in the letter that it did not serve as any individual’s appeal of the ban. The reason is that, per departmental policy, if a ban is reconsidered via an appeal, the remedy is that a heavily redacted version of the questioned publication is then allowed. Instead, the ACLU urged the department to allow “Chokehold” to reach its intended recipient and to take the book off its list of banned publications. [Emerson Sykes and Lamya Agarwala / ACLU]
“The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity,” the letter says. Rather, “improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities in and overall high rates of incarceration.” Arizona has the highest rate of Latinx incarceration and the sixth-highest rate of Black incarceration in the country. [Emerson Sykes and Lamya Agarwala / ACLU]
“Given the well-established Constitutional protections for access to literature in prison and the relevance of Butler’s book to those currently incarcerated,” Sykes and Lamya Agarwala, another ACLU attorney, wrote, “the ADC must lift the ban and loosen its own psychological chokehold on prisoners.”