Books Book Reviews

'I Can’t Breathe' is clear-eyed, hard-hitting account of Eric Garner's death

As a profile of the people closest to Garner, the book proves both empathic and moving.

I Can't Breathe By Matt Taibbi Random House Publishing Group 336 pp.
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  • Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Thanks to a cellphone video shot by a bystander, the immediate facts of the case are clear. And they are sickening. On a New York City sidewalk in July of 2014, an unarmed man who resists arrest not through any kind of physically aggressive behavior, but simply by remaining rooted to the spot, is partly subdued by several policemen, one of whom uses a chokehold – which is illegal. The policemen wrestle the man to the ground, with the chokeholder not letting up, and proceed to place their weight on him, despite his repeatedly and audibly gasping, “I can’t breathe.” (It was later revealed that the police’s violence triggered the man’s asthma.) The victim, 43-year-old Eric Garner, would say no more; he lost consciousness and died shortly thereafter. The aptly titled I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, by well-known author and investigative journalist Matt Taibbi, is Garner’s story.

As an account of what happened that fateful day as well as an analysis of the “apparent thrown case by the district attorney’s office,” which seemed distinctly uninterested in obtaining an indictment of the chokeholding cop despite its professed intentions to the contrary, Taibbi’s book is clear-eyed and hard-hitting. Additionally, as a profile of the people closest to Garner, it proves both empathetic and moving.

Things become complicated when the author attempts to draw categorical conclusions about nationwide racism from the Garner case (Garner was black, while the policemen who manhandled him and ended up taking his life were white). Here, “I Can’t Breathe,” while intermittently cogent, strays into whimsical and sometimes irresponsible conjecture and collective characterization, as with this statement referring to President Donald Trump and those who voted for him: “It struck some people as odd that when America’s white supremacist movement finally spilled out into plain view, it would be led not by a gap-toothed southerner but by a rich New Yorker in a power tie.”

As for the actual arguments, whether compelling or not, that Taibbi makes, we might begin with his treatment of a controversial law enforcement policy that has caused friction between police on one hand and black and Hispanic men on the other. "Broken windows," the theory “that order as an affirmative concept changed the behavior of the surrounding society in beneficial ways,” was in a sense reified as the stop-and-frisk policy, whereby police would stop someone they believed was behaving suspiciously and search the person for illegal possessions of any kind.

Suspicious behavior, even when broken down into separate categories with attendant headings, remained vague enough for police who were so inclined to see it in any number of physical movements. Why would they be so inclined? Taibbi explains that in cities such as New York, cops on the beat have often had to deal with pressure from their superiors to make a minimum number of stops per month and prove as much by filling out a UF-250 form for each one, in line with something called the CompStat system.

NYC officially ended stop-and-frisk in early 2014, before the fatal incident with Garner. However, Taibbi maintains that, far from stopping and frisking less, police officers carried on as before but avoided filling out the required UF-250 forms. What makes little sense is that the author also claims, sporadically, that cops were still under pressure to meet CompStat’s minimum arrests requirement – proof of which is furnished by those very UF-250s.

The bigger problem, one Taibbi attempts to sidestep, is that when it comes to Garner, all of this is a moot point. To be sure, Garner was committing no crime when accosted by the police (in fact, he had just broken up a fight), and his days as a drug dealer were several years behind him. Yet this is not to say that he had gone straight; instead, he oversaw a small-time operation consisting of the illegal sale of untaxed cigarettes. Nearly every day, for hours on end, Garner would stand at his favorite spot on Bay Street, in the North Shore area of Staten Island, selling packs and “loosies” (individual cigarettes) to pedestrians.

Taibbi notes that sometimes the cops would bust Garner not because he was behaving suspiciously at the moment in question, let alone committing a crime, but simply because they knew that he illegally sold untaxed cigs for a living, and that he was therefore likely to be in possession of such contraband material and money from its sale – both of which they’d promptly confiscate. This modus operandi exasperated Garner, as it does Taibbi, given that, if no crime was being committed at the time, “[p]olice had to have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that he was armed and dangerous in order to effect even a pat-down search."

That may be so, but there is no obscuring both the decidedly procedural nature of such an objection and its unintended highlighting of the fact that, were police to simply follow protocol in ruining the livelihood of someone such as Garner, Taibbi would find it difficult if not impossible to fault them. The irony (seemingly lost on the author) is that any number of law-abiding black and Hispanic men who have stood on the receiving end of "broken windows"/stop-and-frisk would make for a more robust indictment of the policy than Garner getting his untaxed cigs confiscated despite not selling them at the time.

This brings us to the true significance of Garner’s case. It consists of two parts. The first is that his killing was set in motion by a police officer not only overzealous and violent, but one who used an illegal move, the chokehold, as other policemen piled on and the helpless Garner repeatedly cried out “I can’t breathe” to no avail. (The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, attributing it to the chokehold and the subsequent pressure on his chest when he was on the ground with the cops on top of him.) On this matter, Taibbi is meticulous in his examination of the facts and suitably condemnatory in his conclusions.

The second part of the Garner saga takes the form of an apparently concerted effort on the part of the powers that be in Staten Island to keep the chokeholding cop, Daniel Pantaleo, who had previously been accused several times of unnecessarily violent conduct on the job, from being criminally charged over the death of Garner. (Criminal trial aside, Garner’s family would eventually accept a financial settlement from the city of New York in return for dropping a wrongful death civil suit.) Here, too, Taibbi demonstrates mastery of the material – no mean feat, given the byzantine nature of the legal system in question. The author walks the reader through a process ostensibly meant to ensure justice for Garner but which instead ended up protecting Pantaleo.

How did this happen? The author makes a convincing argument, albeit a circumstantial one, that then-District Attorney of Staten Island Dan Donovan essentially steered the grand jury, whose proceedings were not open to the public, away from what he was supposed to try to convince it to do: indict Pantaleo. To begin with, Donovan, whom Taibbi believes should have recused himself from the case due to a conflict of interest (as with most DAs, he had close ties to the police), instead announced that he would try it and duly called a grand jury. That was controversial enough. But Donovan’s subsequent behavior would do little to allay the concerns of those who suspected that his heart wasn’t in prosecuting Pantaleo.

As Taibbi reports, witnesses who were subpoenaed maintain that prosecutors from the DA’s office asked them irrelevant questions when they were brought before the grand jury. According to Taisha Allen, an eyewitness who began shooting a cellphone video after Garner was already on the ground, handcuffed and unconscious (the cellphone video showing Garner being taken down while saying “I can’t breathe” was shot by Ramsey Orta), they even tried to stop her from using the term “chokehold” to describe the sustained move that Pantaleo pulled on Garner.

Ultimately, the jury decided not to indict Pantaleo. Following an uproar, Donovan obtained permission from a judge to release a limited amount of information about the jury’s proceedings, with the intention of proving that he had done his job of making the case for Pantaleo’s indictment.

It didn’t work. “What kind of case had Donovan put on, exactly?” is the question Taibbi says many people, including more than a few baffled lawyers, began to ask once they had looked at the material that was released. “Why all of those police witnesses? Why so much evidence about training procedures? Had Donovan called witnesses for the prosecution and the defense?”

Separately, the author notes that “police experts whose qualifications were of various degrees of dubiousness would surface in the press explaining that what Pantaleo had used was not a chokehold at all but something other than what it looked like to most of the planet” – including NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who had publicly described it as a chokehold. It was a “submission hold,” according to this crowd. “Had prosecutors called such experts to testify that Pantaleo had used a submission hold?” asks Taibbi. “If so, it would explain Taisha Allen being shushed when she tried to use the term ‘chokehold.’ ”

The public would never find out. When a group of lawyers representing Garner filed a motion in court requesting that all the information pertaining to the grand jury’s proceedings be disclosed (not just what Donovan had obtained permission to release), it was dismissed. End of story.

It is unfortunate that, as a hard-nosed Taibbi burrows his way into this sordid affair and uncovers one irregularity after another, relates the rise and fall of a protest movement inspired by the Garner case, and details the harassment to which Ramsey Orta was subjected by police in the years following his shooting of the “I can’t breathe” video (a since-incarcerated Orta now alleges beatings at the hands of his prison’s corrections officers), he begins to direct his outrage against white society as a whole. For example: “The sealed Garner grand jury proceedings became a stand-in for the Pandora’s box of American racism.” Unfortunate and ironic, because cops blindly protecting their own and politicians adopting a deferential attitude to their police departments (instances of which we have seen play out across the country time and again) are not, strictly speaking, race-based phenomena.

Yet beware of attempts by detractors to use this admittedly cringe-worthy aspect of “I Can’t Breathe” as a means to discredit the book in its entirety. For all its faults, which tend to spring from Taibbi’s keenness to link the Garner case not just to the wider scourge of police abuse (a connection that is justified) but to a host of socio-racial issues, “I Can’t Breathe” remains a shattering account of a little big man against whom cops used lethal force for no good reason.

Moreover, one of Taibbi’s attempts to locate Garner’s case within an ugly national portrait does in fact succeed. The portrait in question depicts America’s treatment of ex-felons, which is so absurd it seems almost designed to spur recidivism. Following stints in jail for dealing drugs, Eric Garner decided to clean up his act. Yet going straight, as so many men (and some women) in his shoes have discovered, was to prove extraordinarily difficult. After all, as Taibbi observes, “thanks to the drug war, huge numbers of young men came home from prison sentences unable to vote, live in public housing, or obtain licenses to be barbers, pet shop owners, even sanitation workers.”

What to do? Well, in Garner’s case, he turned to selling untaxed cigarettes. And now he’ll never draw another breath.   

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