“They Didn’t Do Their Job”: Eric Garner Family Outraged DOJ Won’t Prosecute His Death by Police
July 16th 2019
It’s been five years since Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed when a white New York City police officer wrestled him to the ground and applied a fatal chokehold, while Garner, who was unarmed, said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced they will not bring civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer implicated in Garner’s death. The move reportedly came after Attorney General William Barr ordered that the case be dropped. Earlier this year, a medical examiner testified that it was a chokehold that triggered an asthma attack that led to Garner’s death, which was ruled a homicide. Pantaleo remains on the police force and earns a salary of more than $100,000. We speak with Jumaane Williams, public advocate for New York City.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It was five years ago today Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed when a white New York City police officer wrestled him to the ground, pinned him down and applied a fatal chokehold, while Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The incident was captured on a cellphone video and spurred mass protests.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Put your hand behind your head!
ERIC GARNER: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!
RAMSEY ORTA: Once again, police beating up on people.
POLICE OFFICER 2: Back up. Back up and get on those steps.
RAMSEY ORTA: OK.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced they will not bring civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer implicated in Garner’s death. The move reportedly came after Attorney General William Barr ordered that the case be dropped. U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue announced the decision Tuesday.
RICHARD DONOGHUE: We evaluated Officer Pantaleo’s actions in light of his training and experience, Mr. Garner’s size, weight and actions to resist arrest, and the duration and escalating nature of the interaction. We determined that was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo acted in willful violation of federal law. As a result, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to bring a federal criminal charge against Officer Pantaleo for his role in the untimely death of Mr. Garner.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, a medical examiner testified it was a chokehold that triggered an asthma attack that led to Garner’s death, which was ruled a homicide. The New York Police Department banned the use of chokeholds in 1993 after it was linked to a rise in deaths. Garner family members met with federal officials shortly before the announcement. This is Garner’s daughter Emerald Snipes speaking outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn.
EMERALD SNIPES: I stand here in the spirit of my sister, who fought for justice until her dying day for my father, standing outside protesting. She called the CCRB to do this investigation. And they didn’t do their job! We called the Department of Justice. They didn’t do their job!
AMY GOODMAN: During a rally at City Hall, Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, called on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire Officer Pantaleo, who remains on the police force and earns a salary of more than $100,000.
GWEN CARR: And, DOJ, you have not heard the last from us. Tomorrow was supposed to be the end of the statute of limitations. But let me tell you something. There is no statute of limitation on murder. That’s what I read in the law books, that murder, there is no statute of limitations. And so, we are going after you, Pantaleo. …
Mayor de Blasio, do your job. Fire these officers. I’m calling for them to be fired today. Today. You don’t have to wait for anything else. You see the DOJ? They failed us. So now you come forward and do your job. You said you care about the New York citizens. Come forward, show yourself as a mayor, the mayor that you was elected to be, because the Garner family is not satisfied with what you have done. My son is dead. My granddaughter is dead. And then all you’re saying is 'Sorry. You have my condolence'? Well, keep your condolences and do the right thing. De Blasio, you and your administration, step up! Get those police officers off the force today! Today, I’m asking for them to be fired. We don’t want to wait any longer. You have the power, so assert your power!
LOYDA COLON: No justice!
SUPPORTERS: No peace!
LOYDA COLON: No justice!
SUPPORTERS: No peace!
AMY GOODMAN: We had hoped we’d be joined by Gwen Carr this morning; she won’t be with us. But we are joined by Jumaane Williams, public advocate for New York City, who was at the news conference with her yesterday at City Hall.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me again.
AMY GOODMAN: Public advocate of New York City. Your response to this decision, that apparently was made by the attorney general of the United States himself, William Barr?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Well, I do want to be clear, what we’re talking about now. All we’re talking about is firing this man from the police department. We’re not talking about a criminal conviction. We’re not talking about civil rights violations. Someone murdered someone on camera, and all we have left is at least fire him from the police department.
Obviously, the DOJ made the wrong decision. But I do have to say, they had the highest burden. And if we can’t get Mayor de Blasio, self-described progressive, who’s running for president, to fire Pantaleo, how do you expect Donald Trump’s DOJto bring civil rights violations against him?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jumaane Williams, I’d like to ask you about—in terms of the Justice Department decision, because the attorney general apparently ruled that it was not—and the prosecutors, some of the prosecutors, because there was reportedly, according to The New York Times, conflicts between prosecutors in the Justice Department as to whether they could bring a case—that they were going to have trouble proving an intent on the part of Pantaleo to actually harm Eric Garner. But the last time a police officer was convicted of a murder or of violating civil rights was back in 1998, when Francis Livoti was convicted of civil rights violations, during the Clinton years, for an illegal chokehold that led to the death of Anthony Baez. Back then, there was no video. There was no video to show what actually happened. And so, there’s definitely, clearly, a precedent for this kind of case being brought and won. And I’m wondering what you think about this reported differences among the Justice Department officials about how to handle this case?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Well, Juan, I do want to remind people—they may not want to hear it—but this is two presidents and three attorney generals that have been looking at this, and none of them have brought charges. I do think they were wrong, and they could have. But with that said, I don’t want to absolve the DOJ, but I don’t want to skip past where we are now.
And by the way, during that time, that officer was fired from the police department by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. And so, now we have Mayor Giuliani who can fire an officer, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, self-described progressive, who’s running around saying he wants to do for the nation what he’s done for New York City, still has Daniel Pantaleo on the force.
AMY GOODMAN: We called, by the way, the Mayor’s Office, and we didn’t get response back. But talk about that. What do you demand that he do? And I’m sure you’ve had many discussions with Mayor de Blasio. You’re the public advocate, he’s the mayor. What does he tell you?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: It’s—it’s—I’m at a loss for words, because we have a man who was elected on police reform issues, on the backs of stories and blood of black and brown New Yorkers, saying that they’ll make changes in the police department. And there have been, and I always want to give credit. But where there hasn’t been is transparency and accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Mayor de Blasio himself. Last month, just after the New York Police Department disciplinary hearing concluded for Daniel Pantaleo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared on WNYC radio’s [Brian] Lehrer Show.
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: But the NYPD is finishing its process now. A final judgment will be delivered soon. And that will be the closure point, at least from the perspective of the City of New York. But this whole thing has been so painful for all of us, and most especially for this family, I just wish the Department of Justice had done their job, either way, and just made a decision.
BRIAN LEHRER: Commissioner O’Neill will have to make a decision about if and how to discipline Officer Pantaleo. With all the evidence in now, what do you think should be done? And if the commissioner doesn’t fire him, should you?
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Brian, I’m not going to entertain hypotheticals. And I’m not going to—in the middle of a due process procedure, I’m not going to, in any way, shape or form, be disrespectful of that process. You know, everyone—I want to say this to everyone listening, including many, many people like me who are progressives—we have to always respect due process. We all want due process for ourselves. We need it for everyone. So that is what’s happening right now. And then the ultimate decision will go to the police commissioner, and I think he is someone who will be very, very mindful and will think in terms of fairness and justice, as I’ve seen him do many times.
BRIAN LEHRER: Are you saying you won’t overrule his decision, even if—
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Again, I’m not doing hypotheticals. Brian, this is—
BRIAN LEHRER: Even if you disagree with him?
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Respectfully, this very, very serious stuff. This is a legal proceeding. I understand what you’re trying to do, and I know you’re a good journalist. But you have to understand, this is serious stuff. This is about people’s lives. I am not commenting on due process. It has to take its course.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was WNYC’s Brian Lehrer interviewing Mayor Bill de Blasio on this issue of the Eric Garner case. I wanted to ask you, Jumaane Williams: What about the mayor’s argument that he’s waiting for the due process procedure, which includes a departmental trial, which Pantaleo has gone through and which he’s awaiting a decision of the judge in that departmental hearing, to decide what steps to take?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: I get angrier and angrier the more I hear this mayor responding. He should no longer mention the name Eric Garner. He should no longer tell the family that he’s sorry. He should no longer speak about this. He has had the authority the whole time to fire Daniel Pantaleo. He has had the authority to at least suspend him. He has had the authority to do something. He misled the public for so long, saying that the DOJ asked him not to proceed. That was not the truth. The DOJtold the family and us that there is nothing stopping him. In fact, they started their own departmental trial before the DOJ. This is fully, completely in the mayor’s wheelhouse. This has been a—this is all this mayor. He has let down black and brown New Yorkers and all New Yorkers who believe in justice when it comes to police doing wrong. He has done this. This is fully in his wheelhouse. Anything else is BS. And he needs to just stop. He needs to own this and do right by this family.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, you, as a public advocate, in the unlikely case that Bill de Blasio is successful in his run for president, you would step in as the mayor, right? You’re the designated successor to an empty mayoral seat. So, you’re saying that you would definitely then immediately fire Pantaleo, if you ended up becoming mayor?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Apparently, the only people who believe that Daniel Pantaleo should not be fired is Pat Lynch from the PBA and Bill de Blasio, the mayor.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now to the U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue speaking during the news conference on Tuesday, as he announced the federal government would not charge officer Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner.
RICHARD DONOGHUE: Attorney General Barr thoroughly considered this case and made a decision himself, and that is the decision of the department. …
Officer Pantaleo was not engaged in a chokehold on Mr. Garner when he said he could not breathe. And neither Officer Pantaleo nor any other officer applied a chokehold to Mr. Garner after he first said he could not breathe. … The video shows that the officers’ initial actions were in accordance with established police tactics and procedures, but that the situation deteriorated as it progressed.
At the end of the day, however, the video and the other evidence gathered in the investigation does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Pantaleo acted willfully in violation of federal law. …
I offered my sincere condolences, as well as the condolences of Attorney General Barr and the entire department, to the family for this tragic loss.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue explaining why they were not bringing civil rights charges against Officer Pantaleo. As you listen to this, Jumaane Williams, he said that Eric Garner did not say, “I can’t breathe,” while he was in a chokehold, as we all watched this video. And let me remind people, the video was taken by a friend of Eric Garner who was right by the incident that was taking place. He just flipped open his cellphone. His name was Ramsey Orta. And he just kept on filming as the police demanded he stop filming. That’s why we know what took place.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: By the way, he’s the only one who’s seen the inside of a jail cell since this all happened, the person who filmed this.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s currently in solitary confinement.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Yeah. I don’t even understand what that means. So, you just admitted that there was a chokehold; you’re just saying the time of the chokehold wasn’t at when he said, “I can’t breathe.” I don’t know what that means. There was an illegal chokehold that was used, that precipitated the death of a man by a police officer. There is no reason that there was a chokehold. There was no one in danger. We’re still looking for the cigarettes that apparently he was selling.
Like, nothing about this case is—I’m at a loss of words, five years later, when a family who—it wasn’t a body cam issue. Everybody is clear in what we saw: a man choked to death by a police officer. Everyone agrees that something wrong happened. Everyone has given their condolences. But nobody is saying that someone should be held accountable, who has the power to do so. And that’s the frustration. I expected the DOJ to do this. It’s unfortunate. I think they had the wrong decision. But here in the city, we have the power to provide some semblance of justice. And that lies with the mayor.
AMY GOODMAN: And as we wrap up, is there anything you, as the public advocate—can you see yourself doing anything?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: You know, we’re going to put—we can put resolutions in, as a city council. We can continue to put the pressure on, which we will. I’m going to join the activists and Gwen Carr, the mother, and the Garner family to continue to put pressure. We’re not going to let up on this. And we’re going to continue to remind everyone across the nation that this mayor is running for president while Daniel Pantaleo is still on the force.
AMY GOODMAN: It was five years ago today that Eric Garner was killed in a chokehold, as he went down, in Staten Island, being held by Daniel Pantaleo. Jumaane Williams is public advocate for New York City. There are protests and vigils planned for today.
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