On July 16th, 2019, the Justice Department announced that it will not bring federal charges against the police officer who killed Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer, was seen on video taken by an onlooker using a chokehold on Garner. Garner was unarmed and nonviolent, and yet, Pantaleo used excessive force. Garner can be heard on video repeating 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” His words have been chanted in Black Lives Matter protests and gatherings around the nation.
On Wednesday, protesters gathered to express the injustice against Eric Garner and the Garner family. Emerald Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, told the crowd that Emerald was there in the spirit of her sister, Erica Garner, who passed away on Dec. 30, 2017. Erica had been an activist against police brutality following her father’s killing and pushed for investigations surrounding this incident to take place. Emerald continued by calling for Pantaleo to be fired and questioned why Mayor de Blasio has not taken action to fire Pantaleo. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, also spoke to the crowd on Wednesday. She stated how the DOJ had failed and that this injustice would not be forgotten nor would it be “swept under the rug.”
The Justice Department’s failure to indict Pantaleo is not the first time that a cop has not been held responsible after killing an unarmed black man or boy. Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9th, 2014, was not charged. Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who killed Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio on November 22, 2014, was not charged. The killings and police brutality go on, but there has been no real responsibility taken. The lack of indictment highlights deeper and institutionalized racism that has yet to be adequately addressed.
As Darran Simon from CNN reported, “Federal investigators have been examining the circumstances of Garner’s death since 2014, after a grand jury in New York declined to indict the Staten Island officer. The city settled with Garner’s estate for $5.9 million in 2015.” But how do you compensate for a life taken? The injustice here is not new. How do we as a nation examine the underlying system which perpetuates violence and does not hold those responsible who have taken black lives under the guise of “self-defense” or other “justifications”?
When the Justice Department does not acknowledge wrongdoing or if they do not take proper action to seek justice, then, ultimately, the Justice Department and the underlying institutions which support it condone this behavior.
Attorney General William Barr made the final decision to not bring federal charges against Pantaleo and took the side of a Justice Department team in New York even though the Civil Rights Division in Washington recommended moving forward with prosecution. According to Eliott C. McLaughlin and Mark Morales from CNN, the NYPD has brought departmental charges against Pantaleo. If found guilty on the departmental charges, McLaughlin and Morales explain that “the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of trials, Rosemarie Maldonado, can recommend discipline ranging from a loss of vacation days to termination.”
Simon also reported that according to a senior Justice Department official, “The decision stemmed from concerns that prosecutors could not successfully prove the officer acted willfully.” Alvin Bragg, a visiting professor and co-director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School who has also given legal advice to the Garner family, explains in an article for The Washington Post, “Congress needs to do away with the requirement of proof that officers have acted ‘willfully’ when they use excessive force. This intent requirement is far higher than what states generally use. Congress also must mandate public reporting explaining the Justice Department’s reasoning in detail when it decides not to bring a charge.”
What does justice for Eric Garner look like? At the very least it may mean Officer Pantaleo being fired. More systemic change is necessary. Some think that increasing visibility of police brutality through body cameras and surveillance may halt this violence. However, a recent study has helped shed light on the issue that body cameras have not had “a consistent or significant effect on officer behavior or citizen opinion of police” as reported by P.R. Lockhart at Vox.
There has to be accountability for the violence enacted against black lives in the United States at the hands of law enforcement. Without an indictment or federal charges pressed, there is no accountability.
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