Outside a Staten Island beauty supply store on Bay Street seven years ago, Eric Garner choked out the words “I can’t breathe” 11 times as he was pinned down to the concrete and held in an illegal chokehold by an NYPD officer for three minutes. Those would be his last words before being killed in what an NYPD medical examiner labeled a homicide.
Garner, a father of six, fell unconscious in front of an increasingly angry crowd in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island. His last moments of life were caught on a video that went viral, sparking the same reaction across the country and leading to massive protests demanding police accountability. Garner’s killing would galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement, only to be reinvigorated following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“It’s like an echo from the grave,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said on CNN during the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of murdering Floyd. “The George Floyd case was so close in proximity to my son’s case.”
Commemorations and vigils have taken place over the last few days, with Carr and Garner’s son hosting a motorcade with the Reverend Al Sharpton outside the National Action Network’s office on West 145th Street in Harlem on Saturday to honor Garner’s life and remember his death at the hands of police. The motorcade will travel from Harlem to the spot where Garner was killed.
At the beauty supply store on Thursday, a resident who went only by Doug remembered Garner fondly and called him a “good guy all-around.”
“[He was] just hanging out, like everybody else, until that racist passed by and saw him,” Doug said.
Doug was referring to then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man who locked Garner in the fatal chokehold. Pantaleo was later fired by the department in an internal disciplinary trial five years after Garner’s death. Both state and federal prosecutors elected not to bring charges against Pantaleo, meaning that he escaped any punishment beyond the loss of his job and pension.
To young human rights advocates like Jolie Santiago from Brooklyn, who spoke before a crowd on Thursday at a vigil in Tompkinsville Park dedicated to Garner and others killed by the NYPD, that kind of justice is just not good enough. The crowd joined in a semi-circle around a candlelit photo of Garner and held up signs condemning police violence, demanding increased social services against over-policing in schools, and bearing the names of people who have died at the hands of the police.
“I would like to see all the police that were committed in this crime arrested and fired from their jobs and not get the money we pay them,” the 14-year-old youth leader with Make The Road New York, a progressive activist organization, said to WNYC/Gothamist. “We’re trying to get justice for Eric Garner.”
Santiago believes that even when the issue of police accountability gets the attention of the City Council and other public officials, “it would take them years to notice and comprehend what’s happening.” Still, Santiago said she is confident that her efforts are pushing the needle closer towards substantive police reform.
The Garner family is demanding accountability from top city officials in a highly uncommon judicial inquiry led by Carr, other family members, and supporters against the city in the courts. On the same day as the vigil, the state Appellate Division unanimously denied the city’s appeal from the inquiry into alleged violations or neglected duties by public officials in the matter of Garner’s death. The appellate judges ruled in favor of Carr and other plaintiffs.
“It’s good that the court denied the city’s appeal but it’s outrageous that I’ve had to fight for seven years while the city has protected officers,” Carr said in a statement. “The level of cover-up in the murder of my son goes all the way to the top and Mayor [Bill] de Blasio and other top city officials need to be questioned.”
The ruling means that high-profile city officials like de Blasio and former police commissioner William Bratton, who ran the department when Garner was killed, may have to take the stand in court. Still, the city maintains that there was no wrongdoing on the part of senior city officials.
“So much information about this incident has been made publicly available and there is no evidence that the Mayor or any other senior city official neglected their duties or violated the law,” a New York City Law Department spokesman said in a statement to WNYC/Gothamist. “The Court acknowledged that summary inquiries should remain exceedingly rare, but concluded that this one is exceptional and should go forward.”
In their decision, the appellate judges noted that there were likely only two other instances of similar judicial inquiries since the city law allowing for such inquiries was first enacted in 1873. The Law Department said it is currently reviewing its options.
Some city officials believe that the mayor should have to testify in court. That includes city councilmember and Democratic candidate for comptroller Brad Lander, who told WNYC/Gothamist that the Garner family “has the right to hear from the people that made a set of decisions from what happened that day.”
The current comptroller, Scott Stringer, signed off on a $5.9 million payout to the Garner family in July 2015.
Despite that, anger and frustration still enshroud the circumstances of Garner’s death.
“That man’s dead; he’s dead,” Doug, the Tompkinsville resident, said to WNYC/Gothamist from outside the beauty supply store on Bay Street. “I think he’d rather be here than to have justice, you know?”
Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at email@example.com or reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1.