"At first I didn't think it would blow up this big," Ramsey Orta told me. He was describing the video he took of his friend Eric Garner being killed by the NYPD. His voice was nearly too soft to hear.
I interviewed Orta on April 10, nine months after Officer Daniel Pantaleo had choked Eric Garner to death in front of Staten Island's Bay Beauty Supply. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but Orta, his supporters say, has been the target of a police campaign to destroy his life ever since.
When I spoke to him, he was at the tail end of a two-month stint on Rikers Island, locked up on $100,000 bail and awaiting trial for drug charges. Orta is 23 years old and slight, with sharp cheekbones that his time in Rikers had made almost disturbingly prominent. Terrified of being poisoned, he'd been living off of pre-packaged commissary food since he entered jail. The fear is better founded than you might think—19 prisoners in Orta's unit are suing the city over pellets of rat poison they allege guards planted in their meatloaf.
Rikers seems an unlikely destination for perhaps the most important citizen journalist of the last year. But though the video Orta shot was shared around the world, he stayed right where he was, a young, working-class Latino man in Staten Island. Anyone in circumstances like those would be vulnerable to police harassment—and doubly so when you make it your business to watch and record the cops and their abuses.
Born in Manhattan, Ramsey Orta moved with his family to Tompkinsville, Staten Island, when he was 13. He lived with his mom, stocked shelves at the local deli, and spent his free time taking his kid brother to the park and helping raise the daughter he'd had at 19. Like many men of color in heavily policed neighborhoods, he'd had his share of arrests. Most were for minor violations, like turnstile-jumping, but a few of the charges were more serious. When he was still a teenager, he plea-bargained to a felony.
Around 2010, Orta became friendly with Eric Garner. Garner was, in Orta's words, "a neighborhood dad," a 40-something grandfather who sold loose cigarettes after his health problems forced him to stop working as a landscaper. A generous, protective, and well-liked man, Garner loved to buy treats for Orta's kid. But Garner's informal cigarette business, illegal under state law, made him an easy target for police, and he had been arrested dozens of times. In 2007, he filed a handwritten complaint from Rikers, alleging he'd been sexually assaulted by police during a strip search.
Though a judge later dismissed Garner's lawsuit, accusations of sexual violence on the part of NYPD officers during arrests are disturbingly common. Pantaleo has been the subject of multiple lawsuits for misconduct, and in January 2014 the city paid a total of $30,000 to two men who said they had been strip-searched and had their genitals slapped in the middle of the street by Pantaleo and other officers.
Orta described police violence as being endemic to Staten Island, and in the summer of 2014, he began to document it. Of the videos Orta told me he shot, he posted just one on his YouTube channel, on July 12, 2014. In it, a gang of white cops force a handcuffed black man into the pavement. As two officers hold the victim down, another officer systematically beats the man's legs with his baton. The man is not seen resisting arrest.
"Y'all tough as hell with them sticks," Orta can be heard saying while holding the camera. When a bystander complains, police slam him onto the pavement, then arrest him.
On July 17, Orta was hanging out outside of Bay Beauty Supply, where Eric Garner had just broken up a fight. When police approached Garner, Orta remembered the beating he had witnessed just days earlier, and took out his cell phone camera.
The video is one of the most shocking images of police brutality I've seen in the United States. –Paul Moakley
As he filmed, Pantaelo choked Garner into unconsciousness as the larger man cried out "I can't breathe!" 11 times. After being denied immediate medical attention, he was carried to an ambulance on a stretcher and died in a hospital shortly afterward.
Orta recorded the key moments of the encounter, and though he had no way of knowing it then, Orta's footage would become among the most important political videos of 2014.
"Ramsey had naturally strong journalistic instincts to record what was happening in his community and share on YouTube," Paul Moakley, TIME's photo editor, told me in an email. "The video is one of the most shocking images of police brutality I've seen in the United States."
In the week after the chokehold incident, Moakley recut Orta's footage into a short and interspersed Garner's killing with an interview with Orta. In his quiet voice, Orta expressed hope in the truth-telling power of video. "Just pull out a camera. That's all people need," he told Moakley. "Once we have proof nothing can go against that." The short won Moakley the prestigious World Press Photo award, and Orta was credited as a cameraman and editor.*
Orta publicly mourned his friend's death, throwing memorials and speaking at vigils. He also testified at the grand jury for Pantaleo. At the same time, according to Orta, the police began to follow him. They drove by his mom's house, where he lived, late at night, shining floodlights into the windows. Orta told me cops stopped by the place where his then girlfriend, Chrissie Ortiz, worked, demanding a copy of the video. (They later arrested Ortiz, allegedly for fighting.) Orta told me his friends were searched after leaving his home. Orta's aunt, Lisa Mercado, who has become his chief supporter and a spokesperson of sorts, told me that she was followed by police whenever she visited Staten Island from her home in New Jersey.
Orta wasn't the only witness to suffer this sort of attention. Taisha Allen filmed officers refusing Garner medical attention as he lay dying. In March 2015, police arrested Allen for being in a park after closing time. Allen alleges they beat her, leaving her covered in bruises and with an injured arm; she told Pix11 that cops recognized her and said, "You're that little girl from the Eric Garner case."
On August 2, 2014, one day after the medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, the cops arrested Orta for illegally possessing a handgun. According to the charge, police saw him place a gun in the waistband of a 17-year-old girl—who according to both his and her families, he barely knew.
Orta's supporters saw this as an act of retaliation on the NYPD's part. "Even the dumbest criminal would know not to be doing something like that outside. So the whole story doesn't fit at all," Ortiz told the Staten Island Advance.
"We need to move to the moon so we can be safe," she added.
Orta's family say he's never owned a gun, and he pled not guilty to the charge. He was released on $75,000 bond and is awaiting trial.
Related: Watch journalist Radley Balko discuss the militarization of America's law enforcement
In the days following the arrest, anonymous law enforcement employees used tabloids like the New York Post to smear Orta as a hardened criminal. The Post quoted a claim from one unnamed cop who said that Orta had "24 previous arrests including for rape, assault and robbery with a boxcutter." But when his attorneys ran through the rap sheet with me, I found that Orta had far fewer arrests then this cop had stated—and that he'd never been charged with rape. (The lawyers would not go on the record with specifics about their client's past charges or convictions.)
"Statements have been made in both open court and to the media by anonymous law enforcement sources, which are demonstrably false and simply misleading." Orta's attorney William Aronin told me. "We believe these are obvious attempts to prejudice the potential jury pool and the online comments to these articles seem to suggest that it may be working."
After Orta's release, the harassment continued. Orta told me police accused him of armed robbery three times, once even drawing a gun on him in the deli where he worked. He has documented his interactions with cops in two videos posted to his YouTube channel. In one, from December 2014, Orta, dressed in a white hoodie, incredulously asks an officer why he's being hassled when the robbery suspect they're pursuing was described as being dressed in black.
The raid had deeply traumatized Orta's mother. According to both Orta and Lisa Mercado, she largely stopped eating, speaking to her loved ones, or even leaving the house.
This all came to a head in a pre-dawn raid on Orta's family house on February 10. According to Orta, his girlfriend was naked and the police did not allow her to dress. They arrested Orta, his 25-year-old brother, and his mother, accusing them of selling heroin, pills, marijuana, and cocaine.
At the resulting hearing, Lisa Mercado told me, Orta and his mother were shackled together. When his mom was released on her own recognizance, Orta moved to give her a hug and court officers began beating him. "I was hysterical," Mercado said. Court officers grabbed Mercado, who is disabled, wrenching her shoulder till she screamed in pain. Seeing her mother's anguish, Mercado's daughter reached out for an officer's shirt, and the cops threw her to the floor, handcuffed her, and charged her with disorderly conduct.
The judge set Orta's bail at $100,000. After paying a $25,000 cash bond for his gun charge, his family couldn't afford to get him out again.
Making matters worse, the raid had deeply traumatized Orta's mother. According to both Orta and Lisa Mercado, she largely stopped eating, speaking to her loved ones, or even leaving the house. His brother becomes so panicked at the sight of police he now attends counseling.
The prosecution's case hinges on nine videos of Orta or his family members allegedly interacting with undercover police. "He took the video," an anonymous police source gloated to the New York Daily News . "Now we took the video." But Orta's lawyers claim the videos are heavily edited, show no drugs being exchanged, and even have altered time stamps.
Lisa Mercado started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $16,000 needed to pay a bail bondsman and get Orta out. But despite the fame of Orta's video, his cause attracted little attention until early April, when lawyer William Aronin, of Perry & Aronin, came across it through contacts in the Black Lives Matter movement. Orta's family soon hired the pair. The two lawyers are an odd couple—Aronin is in his early 30s, exceedingly proper in dapper suits, whereas the 65-year-old Perry wears a battered motorcycle jacket to court and leans on a silver topped cane he nicknamed "the rod of rightous indignation."
By this time, Orta had been languishing in Rikers for nearly two months, but with new lawyers his fortunes seemed to change. On April 6, the Free Thought Project published a post about Orta's imprisonment. His case went viral, and soon the GoFundMe campaign had brought in over $54,000. The office of District Attorney Dan Donovan—now running for Congress in Staten Island as a Republican—requested a hearing to look into the sources of the money, a move Orta's supporters decried as being just another step in the campaign against him. After the media picked up the story, the DA's office withdrew its demands. Orta was released on April 10.
To celebrate, his mom cooked him a banquet of his favorite foods, from fried chicken and cornbread to chocolate cake. But though Ramsey Orta was free, his normal life was over. His mother has fled her home, and he lives with her at an undisclosed location. His next hearing for drug and gun charges is May 28. For drug charges alone, he faces over a decade in prison.
Filming the police is a right, but it is also a subversive act—and power has historically little tolerance for subversion.
Days after Orta's release, another video surfaced of another cop killing another unarmed black man. In cell phone footage courageously captured by Feidin Santana, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer named Michael Slager can be seen firing eight shots at Walter Scott as he runs away. He then planted a stun gun on Scott's corpse. There was no ambiguity possible—Slager had clearly killed a man who was no threat to him, and the cop clearly lied about Scott taking his Taser. After the video was released, Slager was denounced by police and city officials, fired, and charged with murder; his lawyer publicly resigned from his case.
Without that video, the media would almost certainly have accepted the officer's story that Scott tried to steal his stun gun, and Slager would have walked away from the killing. If the Garner killing shows that videotaping the cops alone won't hold them accountable, the Scott shooting proves the necessity of documenting their violence nonetheless. Each such video chips away at widespread American delusions—that police are always good people doing hard jobs who may occasionally fire under threat but would never torture, shoot people in the back, choke men to death, or plant stun guns on corpses.
After Santana came forward as the man who filmed Scott's killing, his mother told Fox News she feared for his safety. Orta's fate shows why. Filming the police is a right, but it is also a subversive act—and power has historically little tolerance for subversion.
Subversive as it is, filming the police alone won't stop police killing. Police are part of the legal machine, which has little impetus to turn against them. Prosecutors refuse to charge cops, grand juries refuse to indict them, police unions back cops who kill not just with money and legal help, but with public passion. Despite a well-documented history of cops lying, juries still mostly believe they tell the truth. To large segments of white America, a police officer's fear or anger is seen as more legitimate than a black person's life. A policeman in Indiana even made T-shirts reading: "Breathe Easy. Don't Break the Law," mocking Garner's dying words.
In the face of this, the videotaped killings of Scott and Garner can seem like little more than endlessly replayed traumatic records of black death. Yet they threaten police deeply—as you can see from all the cases of law enforcement officers deleting cell phone videos and even smashing the devices citizens use to record them.
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Orta how the other
prisoners were treating him in Rikers. "The ones who know what I did respect
me," he answered. "They say I've done a good thing."
UPDATE 4/28: An earlier version of this article stated that Ramsey Orta did not share the World Press Photo award when in fact he was honored as a cameraman and editor. This error has been corrected.
Follow Molly Crabapple on Twitter.