Eric Garner case: why it might not be Ferguson all over again

On Wednesday, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. While there are striking similarities in the Garner and Michael Brown cases, the differences may change the dynamics that led to deep racial divisions in the Missouri case.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Benjamin Carr, stepfather of Eric Garner, leaves the Staten Island prosecutors office Wednesday. A New York grand jury has decided not to charge police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Garner in July.

Less than two weeks apart, grand juries in two different states have declined to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men.

Yet while the similarities between the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are in many ways profound – including the unusual way prosecutors used long-sitting grand juries to hash through a wide array of evidence, instead of just enough to secure charges – there are crucial differences that could change the dynamics that led to the deep racial divisions in the case of Mr. Brown.

On Wednesday, a grand jury in New York City cleared Officer Daniel Pantaleo, after more than two months of hearing evidence about the sidewalk homicide of Mr. Garner of Staten Island, who died during an arrest in July.

A Missouri grand jury also took months to ultimately decline to indict former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown three weeks after Mr. Garner’s death this summer.

The deaths of both men have wrenched the national consciousness, inflaming racial tensions and sparking a host of protests and acts of civil disobedience around the country, some of which have turned violent, as seen in the unrest in Ferguson last week.

“The emotions are going to be explosive,” says Mark Naison, a historian and professor of African American studies at Fordham University in New York. “Black and Latino young people have had it, they’ve been pushed to the edge. This is deeper than anything I have seen in a long, long time.”

As a whole, the nation remained fairly evenly divided on the grand jury’s decision not to charge former Officer Wilson with a crime last week, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday. About half, or 48 percent, of Americans approve of the decision, while 45 percent disapprove.

But 85 percent of blacks are among those who disapprove of the Missouri grand jury’s decision last week, including 73 percent who “strongly” disapprove – a remarkably high sentiment rarely seen in polls on any issue, the researchers note. By contrast, 58 percent of whites approve of the decision, including 42 percent who “strongly” approve.

Yet as news of the grand jury decision in New York begins to sink in, many are beginning to wonder: Will there be fewer racial divisions in this case, or will there once again be a wide divide between blacks and whites on whether or not to charge the officer with a crime?

“This is a pretty powerful moment in American history, and it’s kinda scary,” says Professor Naison. “It’s frightening how little most white people understand the emotions circulating right now in black and Latino communities, especially among young people, who think that this could be them or their brother or friend.”

In Ferguson, two competing narratives, each with support from eyewitnesses, have emerged, and continue to be disputed. One sees Brown as having his hands raised in surrender when he was shot, and the other sees the teenager rushing the officer in a full attack. Across the nation, the basic facts of the case have been vociferously debated.

But Garner’s death was captured on a number of bystander smartphones, and the basic facts of the case are not in dispute. Indeed, many believed there would be an indictment in New York because of the graphic nature of the video and the circumstance of Garner’s fatal arrest.

“When talking about a black white divide, it’s complicated,” says Naison. “For white people, this is going to come down to how much license you’re willing to give to police. They probably are not going to identify as much with the white police officer who killed Eric Garner, but their impulse to defend the police may still lead them to justify it on some level.”

By most accounts, Garner, who had been arrested numerous times for selling loose cigarettes and other minor traffic infractions, was well-known as a peacemaker on Staten Island streets. Married with six children, his large presence often helped broker disputes and break up fights – which witnesses say he was doing on the day of his death. Garner was trying to break up a fight before police arrived on the scene.

But when at least three police officers tried to arrest the 6-foot, 3-inch, 350-pound man, again for peddling single cigarettes called “loosies,” Garner told the cops surrounding him, “It ends today!” telling them to keep their hands off him and suggesting that he would not submit to another low-level arrest.

In one of the videos, Officer Pantaleo is then seen putting Garner in a headlock that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said appears to be a chokehold banned by police policy.

According to the NYPD patrol guide, “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT [emphasis in original] use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”

In the video, Pantaleo then wrestles Garner to the ground, pressing his head to the pavement, as the large man cries out, “I can’t breathe” numerous times. And many have been disturbed by the fact that, as Garner lay motionless on the ground, Pantaleo gives a sarcastic wave to the person taking the video.

The city medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by compression to the neck and body, with asthma and obesity as contributing factors. 

But most police officials reject the idea that the chokehold used on Garner was banned by police rules, and they insist that Garner died because he resisted arrest, and that police had every right to use force to subdue him.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, has been outspoken in his defense of Pantaleo, insisting that the maneuver was a “takedown” and not a chokehold.

“While tragic, none of this would have happened if Mr. Garner, a 350-pound man, did not refuse to be arrested,” Mr. Lynch said this month.

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