Citizen Journalists

Eric Garner Videographer Goes On Prison Hunger Strike

Activists are crowdfunding bail for the young man who videotaped Eric Garner’s death, who claims police are stalking him and that he’s afraid to eat the food in jail.

04.08.15 3:54 PM ET

UPDATE: A day after the Daily Beast reported Orta would get out of Rikers, Staten Island’s district attorney is demanding a “bail source” hearing—preventing his release and prolonging his jail stay for another weekend.

Orta’s family raised more than $40,000 on a crowd-funding site to pay for bail and legal fees. The hearing, called by district attorney Dan Donovan, is to ensure the funds were legitimately acquired, Orta’s attorneys say.

He filmed Eric Garner's death by police and has been arrested twice since. Now Ramsey Orta will be released from a two-month stint at Rikers Island thanks to an outpouring of donations.

A crowdfunding page launched by Orta’s family has raised more than $25,000 and counting — allowing worried relatives to post the $16,250 bail to get him out. The donations will also support his legal fees.

But posting bail means more than just freedom. It will put an end to a sort of hunger strike.

Orta, 23, refuses to eat prison food over fears that New York Corrections Department officers will taint it with rat poison—a complaint echoed by 19 other inmates who filed a lawsuit last month claiming they were sickened by blue-green pellets found in their Rikers meatloaf.

The amateur videographer has stated he’s being targeted by law enforcement after his July 2014 footage of a policeman putting Garner in a deadly chokehold went viral, becoming a high-profile example of controversial police tactics. The Garner death, and a subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved, became a flashpoint for New York City and set off massive protests in December of last year. Orta claims that officers have been stalking and arresting him in retaliation for the video ever since it became public.

One of Orta’s attorneys, Will Aronin, confirmed his client is forgoing Rikers grub.

“Ramsey is afraid because of that [inmate poison claims] and other issues,” Aronin told the Daily Beast. “We’re thrilled to circumvent this by getting him home.”

Lisa Mercado, Orta’s aunt, said he’s been looking gaunt in recent visits.

“With everything he’s been through … he doesn’t belong in Rikers,” Mercado said. “He’s lost a lot of weight since being there. He’s still afraid to eat, and you can’t force him on that.”

For the last few weeks, Orta has survived on chips and cookies from the jail’s vending machines, she said. Without the money to post bail, his family feared for the worst—until activists circulated Mercado’s GoFundMe campaign and wrote about his plight earlier this week. 

At least five New York supporters have also offered Orta jobs doing office work, Mercado told The Daily Beast.

“I am extremely happy and feel blessed,” Mercado said, adding, “People just want to help him, where they stay by his side at all times and make sure he stays safe.”

The aunt says Orta wants to attend college for journalism after learning that a Time.com video on his cellphone footage won an award, Mercado said. The prize is Orta’s, as far as family and allies are concerned.  

“He wants to continue helping people, walking around with a camera,” Mercado said.

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Still, it’s unlikely the budding cameraman will be able to matriculate anytime soon.

Cops busted Orta at his Staten Island home on Feb. 10 for allegedly peddling drugs to undercover officers nine times. Authorities also arrested his mother and brother in the sweep.

In August 2014, police arrested Orta for criminal possession of a firearm—just one month after he taped the video showing Garner’s death.

Orta has claimed he’s being framed on trumped-up charges as vengeance. He faces felony charges for both incidents.

He will remain in jail for at least another week as his aunt waits up to seven business days for GoFundMe to transfer donation money, according to Orta’s lawyer, Aronin.

“We’re overwhelmed and thrilled by the support we’ve gotten from the community,” Aronin said. “We will do everything in our legal power to defend Ramsey.”

In the meantime, Aronin and his partner, Ken Perry, say they’ll request a change of venue for Orta’s future trials to be moved from Staten Island to another location.

“Minds are already made up,” said Perry, adding that city tabloids puffed up Orta's rap sheet and called him a career criminal. “The only way for a fair trial here is to go into a different borough.”