Calvin Bryant protesting outside Eric Garner's funeral in Brooklyn. Photos by Bobby Viteri
On Friday, Staten Island resident Eric Garner's death was officially ruled a homicide. For the last two weeks, New York City has been roiled by video of him gasping his last words—"I can't breathe!"—after an NYPD officer put him in a choke-hold while arresting him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. At Garner's funeral on July 23 at Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, reporters and news crews swarmed the block, interviewing relatives, high-profile guests like the Reverend Al Sharpton, and other attendees.
What the local press didn't see that evening, and what has gone unreported until now, is that police officers chose the funeral of a man whose death in police custody has put the NYPD on the defensive to make another, very public arrest of a guy who wasn't doing anything illegal at the time.
Among those interviewed during the media circus outside the funeral was Calvin Bryant, a 53-year-old anti-police-violence activist who says he knew Garner growing up. Bryant was angry, and let the press know it as he stood with his cousin, Richard Kirkpatrick, and his two young children, holding a sign that read "# I Can't Breath" and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Ramarley Graham, the Bronx teenager killed in his own home by police in 2012. "When is this going to stop?" Bryant asked reporters, clutching his shirt. "Ramarley Graham, this case ain't been solved yet, and already you've got the nerve to kill this man Eric Garner."
After the funeral, as Kirkpatrick, Bryant and his children were leaving the church, they were approached by a group of plainclothes cops. Kirkpatrick says he was asked, "Is that your cousin, Calvin Bryant?" When he confirmed Bryant's identity, he says, police followed them down the block and arrested Bryant.
In addition to an outstanding bench warrant, Bryant was charged with resisting arrest. According to the arrest document, "The defendant did resist a lawful arrest by flailing the defendant's arms and pushing the deponent while the deponent attempted to place the defendant in handcuffs."
Bryant and Kirkpatrick vehemently deny that accusation. "I didn't resist arrest," Bryant says. "I didn't have time. I was holding my kids' hands so I wouldn't have been able to throw my hands up."
Fittingly, given the current furor over videotaped police conduct, there's video of the arrest, shot by Kirkpatrick. The video shows Bryant held up against a car on Bergen Street by five cops in the classic plainclothes mufti of sports jerseys and cargo shorts. Doubled over the hood of a parked car, Bryant begs his cousin to watch his two children, who can be heard crying in the background. An angry crowd shouts at the officers cuffing him. In the video, Bryant can't exactly be said to be submitting quietly to arrest, but neither does he appear to flail his arms or push any police officers. Then again, the video only begins partway through the arrest—what happened beforehand isn't documented.
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The arrest was hardly Bryant's first run-in with the law. He's got a lengthy rap sheet of misdemeanors, and did a bid upstate for a 1980 robbery. He also had the outstanding bench warrant from 2010, when he failed to appear in court on charges that he was scamming tourists outside a strip club in Manhattan. (Bryant says he missed the court date when his grandmother died and he had to go down to Alabama.) It was for this open warrant that Bryant was arrested at the funeral, and his lawyers concede that there's nothing technically improper about the police arresting a man with an open warrant. They speculate that police officers overheard Bryant give his name to reporters before the funeral, and ran him through their database.
What Bryant and his lawyers do find troubling is the time and place of an arrest that could have been made somewhere else, and at any other time.
"Why on earth choose this moment?" asks Scott Hechinger, one of the lawyers from Brooklyn Defender Services working on Bryant's case. "There's about a million other ways to arrest this guy. Get him at his house the day before, the day after, any time over the last four years. Why choose the funeral service—the service that they caused—to inflame tensions? The timing just makes you wonder: Is this to make a statement?"
The NYPD didn't respond to a request for comment. But the furor following Garner's death challenges the core principle of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton: the "Broken Windows" model of aggressively policing minor infractions. So far, Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio are defending that policy, even as its critics are taking the opportunity to demand change.
Rank-and-file police have also been grappling with how they're perceived over the last two weeks. As New York magazine found, at least some police officers feel unfairly judged amid the public horror at Garner's death, and believe that, far from being a victim, he got what was coming to him. It's not inconceivable that officers assigned to Garner's funeral didn't take kindly to the sort of criticism Bryant was dishing out, and that they wanted to make a statement of their own.
Carleton Burkley, a retired NYPD detective turned police-reform advocate, says he's encountered Bryant before at rallies and demonstrations, and Bryant has a reputation for stirring crowds up after police killings. "I'm not telling you that for doing that, people should target him," Burkley says. "But I am saying the police are known to target people who do that, because they're trying to send a message: 'We know who you are. We're watching.'"
But if there's one message the video of Garner's final moments drove home, it's that the cops aren't the only ones watching. Whether the officers who arrested Calvin Bryant intended to send a message at the funeral or not, the incident is unlikely to do anything to ease the tensions between New Yorkers and their police that have spiked over the last two weeks.
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