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The man who filmed NYPD officers choking Eric Garner to death is going to prison

Ramsey Orta shot the cell phone video that gave a movement its slogan, "I can't breathe." Now he's going to prison for selling heroin and gun possession.
Ramsey Orta, who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner, is detained during a march in Manhattan, Sept. 21, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly TPX

His cell phone video of the last moments of Eric Garner's life triggered a national conversation about policing and race, and gave the nascent Black Lives Matter movement a slogan: "I can't breathe."

Now Ramsey Orta is going to jail to serve a four-year sentence for selling heroin and illegal possession of a firearm.

Orta, 25, witnessed the death of Garner, who was restrained in a chokehold by New York City Police in Staten Island two years ago. Police were detaining Garner for selling single cigarettes in front of a convenience store, and put him in a chokehold to wrestle him to the ground.


Orta caught the act on his cell phone, including Garner's final words, "I can't breathe." He then uploaded the video to YouTube and inspired others to grab their cell phones and record police actions across the country. The officer involved in the deadly chokehold — a maneuver banned under the New York Police Patrol Guide — was not indicted for Garner's death.

Orta starts his prison term Monday, part of a plea agreement with the New York District Attorney. But he has always contended that he got extra scrutiny from the police because of his video. "I get spotlights shined in my window," Orta told VICE News in an interview. "Officers park around my house, wave at me, follow me, point me out, say, 'That's the video guy.'"

He has been arrested numerous times, including at a Black Lives Matter demonstration and while recording police conducting a traffic stop.

A member of Cop Watch, Orta says he plans to continue his activism on the inside, even though he is concerned about retaliation from corrections officers. "I plan on holding 'know your rights' training," Orta said. "Specifically about and around prisoner rights."

Jose LaSalle, who founded the South Bronx's Cop Watch Patrol Unit in 2011, says that patterns of police retaliation against activists are not uncommon. He has been arrested on numerous occasions and is currently involved in three separate lawsuits that he filed against the NYPD alleging retaliatory arrest and confiscating his cell phone containing footage of police activity.

Orta says he hopes his imprisonment won't discourage people from recording the police. "I don't want my situation to be a deterrent to people who want to film the police," he said. "Keep fighting. Hold the police accountable."