CHILLING INDIFFERENCE

‘I Can’t Breathe!’ ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ A Moral Indictment of Cop Culture

Even though a grand jury chose not to indict the cop who killed Eric Garner, the video is damning of police. How could they ignore a dying man's plea for air?

12.04.14 3:31 AM ET

The grand jury has spoken, but that does not change what Eric Garner cried out in the cellphone video taken as police pinned him to a Staten Island sidewalk.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner said again and again that July day.

And even though the grand jury has now chosen not to bring criminal charges in Garner’s death, the video footage that follows those cries constitutes a moral indictment not so much of what the police did but of what the police did not do.

“At that point, forget the cop side,” a longtime veteran police officer not party to the incident says of the moment Garner cries out. “The human side comes in.”

Yet the cops do not seem even to hear Garner.

“I don’t see anyone in that video saying, ‘Look, we got to ease up,’” says the veteran officer. “Where’s the human side of you in that you’ve got a guy saying, ‘I can’t breathe?’”

The veteran officer goes on, “Somebody needs to say, ‘Stop it!’ That’s what’s missing here was a voice of reason. The only voice we’re hearing is of Eric Garner.”

The veteran officer believes Garner might have survived had anybody heeded his pleas.

“He could have had a chance,” says the officer, who is black. “But you got to believe he’s a human being first. A human being saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

What may have saved Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo from indictment is that a close examination of the video shows he had had released his chokehold on Garner just before the 43-year-old father of six began crying out that he could not breathe. Pantaleo by then was shifting around to press the prone man’s head into the pavement.

None of the cops in the video are beating Garner. And in two hours of questioning by the grand jurors on Nov. 22, Pantaleo apparently convinced them that he had not intended to injure Garner, only to place him under arrest. Pantaleo was held blameless even though the medical examiner had ruled the death a homicide resulting from “compression of the neck [chokehold], compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

But the absence of criminal charges does not make the indifference to Garner’s distress any more forgivable. There were still those cries, cries that rose again Wednesday afternoon from the same grimy patch of pavement where Garner died, voiced by two dozen members of the community who stood shocked and angered by the news that no cop would be charged.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

They added a chant that rose in Ferguson, where another grand jury had declined to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

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A 25-year-old man named Alexander Cooper strode up the sidewalk holding his 3-year-old daughter, Alexis, by the hand. He told her what he also would have said had they been walking in Ferguson, no matter what the differences between the two cases.

“I just told her that a black man was killed and there were no charges,” he said.

He added, “As I father, I want to live and watch my children grow.”

Cooper spoke of how pained he was that Garner will never get that chance with his own kids. Little Alexis pulled on his hand.

“I have my daddy right here!” she announced.

Cooper had little Alexis pose for a picture on the exact spot there Garner was pinned. Alexis did not know to act differently than she might for any other picture taken of her by her daddy. Her bright little smile in this place of senseless death constituted a challenge to all of us to make the future more in keeping with this sparkle of life at its most pure and innocent.

“I’m going to show it to her in the future,” Cooper said of the picture. “I’m going to show her she was here.”

We can only hope that she will marvel at how much the city and country have changed.

Earlier in the day, before the decision became known, Jonathan Mejia and Natassia McClean had come up to this spot pushing a stroller that bore an even younger challenge of the future, their 6-month-old son, Jerimiah. Mejia looked at a rain-sodden sign reading “BIG ERIC R.I.P.” and flowers left after Garner’s death that had wilted during the four long months of the grand jury’s investigation.

“I knew somebody else killed by the police,” 21-year-old Mejia said.

The couple had recently moved to Staten Island from the Bronx, where Mejia had been buddies with 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. Police had burst into Graham’s home in 2012 after seeing him in the street adjusting something in his waistband that might have been a gun. He was in the bathroom, perhaps trying to flush some pot down the toilet, when a cop burst in.

The cop shot and killed Graham, later saying the teen had reached for his waistband. No gun was found, and in this instance the cop was indicted. A judge then tossed the indictment out, saying the prosecutor had made an error in presenting the evidence. A second grand jury declined to indict the cop.

Mejia now stood where Garner died and spoke Graham’s name aloud.

“That was my friend,” he said.

This second tragedy reconfirmed in Mejia’s mind what the earlier killing had led him to conclude about the police and people of color.

“They don’t look at us like regular human beings,” he said.

The baby was dozing as Mejia and McClean pushed him on down the street, the parents not seeming to take any great comfort in the police having transformed New York into the safest big city in America in recent years.

Protestors shout at Times Square after it was announced that the New York City police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner is not being indicted, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in New York. A grand jury cleared the white New York City police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of Garner, an unarmed black man, who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a lawyer for the victim's family said. A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. The city medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Julio Cortez/AP

In truth, the police routinely place themselves in great danger while continuing the bring crime in New York to record lows. And many of them live by words that Pantaleo at least professed in a statement released Wednesday through the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Pantaleo said.

He went on to say, “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Nice sentiments from a guy who seemed deaf to Garner’s pleas that he was unable to breathe.

“The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe!” Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, told a press conference Wednesday.

Pantaleo comes from Eltingville, the overwhelmingly white section of Staten Island that was home to Police Officer Justin Volpe, who is presently in prison for sodomizing Abner Louima with a wooden stick in a stationhouse bathroom. Eltingville is not known for being progressive on matters of race, but Volpe’s family is said not to have been racist, and he had a black fiancée. Pantaleo is also not necessarily a manifest racist.

“I think it’s just cop culture,” a longtime Eltingville resident said Wednesday.

That unfairly characterizes the many decent cops, but there is indeed one element of cop culture that tends to dehumanize or at least objectify suspected lawbreakers of whatever race. The instant you are deemed a candidate for arrest, you become not so much a person as a “perp.”

“You’re dehumanizing the person,” the veteran black police officer says.

In the view of some cops, perps merit little concern or sympathy. This is particularly true when such cops are focused on effecting an arrest. The result can be the indifference that appears so chilling in the Garner video.

“You’re not even hearing [the perp] at this point; you’re dealing with this non-human,” the veteran police officer says.

The veteran officer notes that even in the most extreme mixed martial arts bouts, a fighter can “tap out,” signaling he has had enough.

“Eric Garner didn’t have a chance to tap out,” the veteran officer says.

The whole incident becomes all the more shocking when you consider that Garner was being arrested for selling “loosies,” individual and usually untaxed cigarettes. The police had arrested him repeatedly in the spring and into the summer in response to orders originally with Chief of Department Phil Banks, third in command of the NYPD. Banks’s office had reportedly been receiving complaints from local storeowners about people selling loosies in the street. One caller had mentioned “a man named Eric.”

“They feel like they’re driven to produce, and producing means arrests,” the veteran officer says of fellow cops in such instances.

For reasons entirely unrelated to Garner’s death, Banks retired in October. He happens to be black, and his departure was seen as a blow to the NYPD’s efforts to establish better relations with communities of color.

With the grand jury’s failure to indict Garner and the recent accidental shooting of an unarmed young man by a jittery rookie cop in a darkened housing protect stairwell in Brooklyn, those relations have become decidedly tense, despite the city’s proudly progressive new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Garner’s family and their supporters are hoping the U.S. Justice Department will indict Pantaleo on civil-rights charges, as it did Police Officer Francis Livotti, who employed a chokehold on 29-year-old Anthony Baez some 20 years ago in the Bronx, with fatal results. The Livotti case led to the NYPD’s prohibition against the use of chokeholds, which it defines as bringing pressure to bear on the airways.

On Wednesday evening, some residents of Staten Island boarded the ferry to join protesters who were gathering in Times Square, not far from Rockefeller Center, where the big event of the night was scheduled to be the annual Christmas tree lighting.

As a precaution against a possible disturbance, the ferry was escorted by a police boat, its blue lights flashing. The boat was named in memory of Det. Dillon Stewart, a black police officer who was shot to death in the line of duty in Brooklyn in 2005, leaving two young daughters. The whole city mourned Stewart’s loss and honored him as a hero in the ongoing effort to make New York safe.

There was no trouble on the ferry as it reached Manhattan and a few of the passengers boarded the subway to the protest uptown. The cry that rose up into the night signaled a moral indictment no matter what the grand jury had said.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”