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One Year After the Eric Garner Non-Indictment, Has Anything Changed?

We asked some experts and key players in New York City's police reform movement.
December 4, 2015, 6:20pm
All photos by Jason Bergman

On Thursday exactly a year ago, New York City was practically on fire.

The startling decision last December 3 by a grand jury to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer behind the videotaped death of Eric Garner, blew the lid off a razzled metropolis whose citizens were already familiar with police brutality and discrimination. By then, of course, protests had spread across the country, due to the nearly concurrent decision with Michael Brown's case in Ferguson. In New York, as in Missouri, the anger was palpable—like you could reach out and touch it. And it stayed that way, for a while.

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For weeks and even months, there were protests—massive ones, everywhere you looked, shutting down traffic for miles. Headlines buzzed with the latest die-ins, and videos of violent arrests up and down Broadway filtered through Facebook feeds. There were even counter-protests, which, in retrospect, seem like a ugly precursor to Donald Trump's perverse campaign rallies. It was this rare cultural flash where the seams of the city's society were suddenly stretched to a breaking point.

While local politicians were forced to take sides on divisive issues relating to police violence and racism, the fatal chokehold of the 43-year-old black man on Staten Island set into motion a chaotic sequence of events that made for one of the tensest times in New York's recent history. Two NYPD officers were gunned down by a mentally-ill man who was apparently enraged about Garner's death. It was an execution that infuriated pro-police forces, and some cops later turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in a symbolic show of force. Then, a coordinated slowdown infiltrated the city's police department, and for days on end, arrests came to a virtual standstill.

The streets of New York functioned, for months, as a living exhibit of where America was at, race-wise, in 2014. But the issue cut even deeper: For the first time in decades, it seemed as if these issues had fully permeated the national discourse. It was something you and everyone you knew, both young and old, had to have an opinion on. If nothing else, it seemed like pretty much every New Yorker did.

All photos by Jason Bergman

Since those days, however, the crowds at protests have declined, and so has the attention. Still, on Thursday night, on the one-year anniversary of the Garner non-indictment, a crowd gathered in front of Gracie Mansion, where the mayor sleeps, demanding the firing of Officer Pantaleo. After the group blocked the quiet street, there were a handful of arrests, but the cops were ready for them—the last 12 months had prepared them well. But back then, there were thousands; this time, barely a hundred.

The kinetic energy of protest has transmitted itself to other cities similarly gripped by these issue, like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Chicago. Names like Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and, most recently, Laquan McDonald have more power right now—all black victims who died at the hands of white officers. But Garner was the first in this cruel viral lineup, and oddly enough, his death, and his killer's subsequent non-indictment, can be seen, almost, as something that had to happen, an aggravated assault on justice that was necessary in order for it to be served elsewhere (There have been indictments in three of these other four cases, and Rice's killers may be indicted in the weeks ahead). New York City—and, for that matter, the country—will never be the same.

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In honor of the Garner non-indictment's anniversary, I asked experts, advocates, and protesters to weigh in on what's happened since.

Christina Greer, political scientist at Fordham University and author, Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American DREAM

Because of what's going on nationally, a certain segment of people who may have not properly understood the protests last year are now starting to see that these fears, this anger and frustration, are actually valid. And then, I think, for a certain portion of population who didn't respect the protests or appreciate them, I still don't think they respect or appreciate them. Even today. Even with all the information that's out there.

But it's also very clear that the criminal justice system, if you can even call it that, has rewarded the Staten Island District Attorney with a congressional seat [the DA, Dan Donovan, ran for the House last May, and won with nearly 60 percent of the vote]. It's very clear to a lot of people that we are not monolithic in how we view police brutality, racism, white supremacy, and these structural injustices that are still going on in New York City. And to the country, New York is this liberal bastion, but it's clearly not.

With those other national examples [of brutality], I would say those are only a few indictments. There've been two or three indictments out of hundreds of cases of police brutality and murder that aren't brought to justice. In Chicago, it's somewhat of a win that the [superintendent got fired]. However, if it wasn't for a whistleblower, we wouldn't even know about [the specifics of an incident where a cop shot a teenager 16 times]. That's actually extenuating circumstances. Laquan McDonald was murdered over 400 days ago! So if it weren't for a random civilian risking their life and career to speak up for a poor 17-year-old boy, how would we even know? So yeah, it's a win, but it's like a back-door win.

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The thing that we don't want to happen is to start feeling like this is just what happens, right? Because that's when we're in a really dangerous place, where it's like, "Oh, this is just the norm." I think for some communities, they think that this is just what police do. We're sort of shocked at seeing this, but let's also be clear: There are lots of people who have been ringing the alarm for years. The police just come into our neighborhood and knock us around and there's a murder and you get no justice and that's just what it is. And with people like Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley, those are just the names we know.

Eugene O'Donnell, professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and retired NYPD Sergeant, former prosecutor

I think the mayor deserves credit for a lot. He's done what many thought couldn't be done, which is keep the city safe. The crime numbers are spectacularly low still, and he's cut a lot of these unnecessary adversarial police interactions. It also really makes being a cop a better job; I don't think the cops relish the idea of going face to face with people every day and having to do certain kinds of enforcement, even if that's what the higher echelon required. They may not say it out loud, but I think the quality of their lives is probably better now than it was then.

Then you have to say that [Commissioner] Bill Bratton deserves some credit, because Bratton knows to acknowledge that things are broken. You think he's not saying that out loud, but he is saying that. After Garner, he said the truth, and the truth is, New York City cops have no physical skills to make arrests. They're your neighbors; they're ordinary people. So they don't really have skills. So he, at least, said we're gonna run everyone through a couple of days of hands-on training. Not every police chief would do that—there's a tremendous amount of denial there.

I paneled the Nassau County Bar Association, on Long Island, the other night, and a white lawyer told me the usual horror story about parking in a bus stop and getting verbally abused by a cop. And it just rings true. And the lawyer's father was a cop. That's their issue, and they got to fix that issue. It's these ordinary interactions that still leave a lot of people bruised. It doesn't have to be painful. And the cops don't have to make it feel personal, or disrespectful. It's not a requirement. That's a cultural issue beyond New York that we really got to work with.

Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform

A part of what's remarkable about New York City, when we look at this past year, is if you look to the year prior to it. 2013 was this local landscape where there was this whole grassroots movement against racial profiling and other discriminatory profiling. With the Floyd v. New York case, and the growing opposition to stop-and-frisk—which is certainly not new to New York—because of data that was just made available a few years prior, we were able to make a much more compelling case, especially to those communities that are not directly affected. The local New York City government was able to respond to the growing grassroots demands for change, and pass landmark legislation in many ways, at least for the City Council, with the Community Safety Act.

One year later, we're in 2014, and up until now, there's been this whole growing national movement that's influenced electoral politics, policy, and we're seeing it even influence the presidential race. In spite of that, what's ironic is that the local government here is going in the opposite direction. The rest of the country, in some ways, is responding and trying to make some advances forward, while, in New York, things are pretty reactionary. Like adding 1,300 new cops to the Council budget, plus the additional 400 that are moving from desk to street, which we still have serious concerns about. And there's been no legislative action since last year, not only after the killing of Eric Garner in New York, but also Akai Gurley. So that's the irony of this context.

Right around this time last year, we did an action the day after the non-indictment, with some 20,000 people in Foley Square, and we followed that up with another 11 days of action. And we chose 11 demands, because people could hear Garner say he couldn't breathe 11 times. And only two have been met, and they were the two that relate to the Governor in regards to statewide things. So Governor Cuomo had the executive order for a special prosecutor, and also vetoed the attempt by the police union to have discipline in part of contract negotiations. But the local government has done nothing. As far as we're concerned, there hasn't been meaningful or substantive reform at the local level.

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So I think this is a moment right now where it's gonna be up to all of us—not just across the nation, but in New York City—to continue to build this movement that's really trying to end systematic violence and systematic injustice. This is the moment we're in, I think.

Reverend Jim Kast-Keat, middle Collegiate Church

I think what has changed is that more people have become a part of this conversation. Because it's one year later, and we are still seeing Officer Pantaleo employed by the New York Police Department. And when Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, is choked to death by a public servant who's hired to protect him and his community, justice deserves not only an indictment but the termination of employment for Officer Pantaleo. I think the one thing that's changed is the uptick in awareness and the conversation, which is why we see so many people gathered here today.

I think I see a change in the country in that people are finally waking up to what's been going on for far too long. In one way, you could say this is just an issue of violence or police brutality, but I think it still stems to race—America's original sin. And I think the events of this past year, with the death of Eric Garner and what happened in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, they simply remind us of this ongoing civil war that continues to exist in our country.

With Eric's video, it makes me sad for how many times events like this happen that people aren't aware of because it wasn't captured on video. As a Christian minister, I believe that God always stands with the oppressed, God hears every cry even when no one hears it. So regardless if videos are being captured, there is too much injustice, and God is always standing on the side of the oppressed, working for justice in our country and our world.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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