If you thought cops killed Eric Garner, you got it wrong. It's the lack of respect for cops that did.
That's pretty much the sentiment behind a bizarre press conference held by police unions on Tuesday, in which representatives talked angrily about how nobody in New York loves them anymore.
In their remarks, the reps picked up a fight with the city's medical examiner, slamming the official autopsy report of Garner's death as wrong and "political," and accusing everyone from the mayor, to the media, to civil rights advocates of distorting the truth.
Call it semantics, but the man looked like he was being choked when a bunch of officers pushed him to the ground, while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk on July 17. Garner's last moments of life have been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people in a video captured by a bystander.
The 43-year-old father of six, who was asthmatic, can be heard saying "I can't breathe" several times in the footage, and the city's chief medical examiner confirmed that much on August 1, when he ruled Garner's death a "homicide by chokehold."
Several police union reps didn't agree, however, and continued to defend the officer doing the choking, vehemently denying the evidence presented by the autopsy.
Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA), said that the use of force is "never pretty to watch" but that Garner pretty much had it coming. The police representative said Garner's "tragic" death was a direct result of his attempt to resist arrest.
'It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say that we go out on our streets to choke people of color.'
"There's an attitude on our city's streets today that it is acceptable to resist arrest," Lynch said. "That attitude is a direct result of the lack of respect for law enforcement, resulting from the slanderous, insulting, and unjust manner in which police officers are being portrayed."
Or, in other words, cops didn't kill Garner, everyone who ever criticized the NYPD did, by "tarnishing" its reputation.
"It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say that we go out on our streets to choke people of color," Lynch continued, directly referring to a comment made by civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton.
"It was not a chokehold," he added. "I have never seen a document that was more political."
'The police unions are trying to exonerate the officer from accountability. The chokehold is a tactic that's been against NYPD protocol for many years.'
Never mind that even NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton said, after Garner's death, that the arrest involved what would "appear to have been a chokehold," as reported by DNAinfo.
"The video evidence and the medical examiner's report are clear, and together those two things constitute pretty obvious evidence," Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee, a city grassroots organization working against police brutality and racism, told VICE News. "This man was clearly, brutally taken to the ground by these officers, the video makes pretty clear that there's a chokehold, and the medical examiner report finds the same thing."
"The police unions are trying to exonerate the officer from accountability," she added. "The chokehold is a tactic that's been against NYPD protocol for many years and so I think the unions are concerned that by calling it a chokehold — which is what it was — it proves that there was responsibility on part of the officer. And there was responsibility on part of the officer."
Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, also chimed in at the police unions' press conference .
"What's being left out of everything that's been printed by the media is the fact that police officer [Daniel] Pantaleo didn't go to work that day with the intention of killing anyone," he said. "When you look at the tape that's all over the media, no one talks about the time delay where the officers waited for assistance. There was a greater time delay of assistance, and time for Eric Garner to surrender, than there was any actual scuffle itself. He chose not to. As Pat said, this is not a chokehold. A chokehold is a completely opposite tactic than what you are watching."
"We want justice for everyone except for police officers," Mullins added, suggesting people will only care for the police when someone is "urinating on [their] block."
The video of the full press conference is below.
And here's the video of the chokehold, or whatever police unions would like to call it.
Neither the unions nor the NYPD responded to VICE News' request for further comment on the disagreement with the medical examiner.
But the police unions' statements stirred an avalanche of responses, including from Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sharpton, and civil rights and cop watch groups across the city.
"It's at best disappointing that the union is choosing to dispute the findings of the medical examiner — and what millions of people saw in the video — as a chokehold," Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, told VICE News. "PBA members would be better served — and certainly New Yorkers would be — if instead than trying to defend the police officers' actions that resulted in the death of Eric Garner, PBA officials lifted their voice in favor of better training and accountability for officers, and affirming the importance of measured police responses and the respect for individual rights."
'I don't let the rhetoric of union leaders get in the way of getting our job done.'
"This is not a political document, it's a medical document," Lieberman added. "What the coroner's document told us is that what's presented by the NYPD as low-level policing, for low-level offenses, can have very, very serious, unanticipated, and devastating consequences that are anything but 'low-level.'"
Mayor De Blasio, speaking at a separate press conference on Tuesday, was unfazed.
"Union leaders will say what union leaders say," he said. "We have a job to do, we're going to do our job. I don't let the rhetoric of union leaders get in the way of getting our job done."
In a statement, Sharpton dismissed the unions' comments as "immature name calling and childish attempts to scapegoat."
Lynch had said in the press conference: "I do not believe [Sharpton] has credibility... he doesn't have the right to make up facts. The only one that'll dial Al Sharpton is someone who just got locked up with a gun and wants to be saved."
Sharpton responded: "To say that only people with guns call us shows the reckless and immature manner in which some parties want to engage. The fact is that all of the people we stood up for — from Sean Bell to Trayvon Martin, to Amadou Diallo — those people did not have guns, but their shooters did."
At a City Hall meeting last week, Sharpton told the mayor: "If Dante wasn't your son, he'd be a candidate for a chokehold."
The video of that panel, which Bratton also attended, is below.
Shooting the Messenger?
Meanwhile, Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old who filmed and shared the infamous video of Garner's encounter with police, was himself arrested on Saturday on weapon charges.
Police say they saw Orta passing a gun to a 17-year-old girl. But his family says he was set up, and that he had been harassed by police since releasing the footage.
'We really commend Ramsey for his bravery in filming that incident. Without that footage it's very unlikely that we would have this clear understanding of what happened in this case.'
"They park across the street, they follow him," his wife, Chrissie Ortiz, 30, told local reporters. "It's obvious. Once they rule this a homicide, now you all of a sudden find something on him? Come on, let's be realistic. Even the dumbest criminal would know not to be doing something like that outside. So the whole story doesn't fit at all."
On Tuesday, Ortiz herself was also arrested on assault charges for attacking another woman, police said. She was released a short time later. Orta is still in custody, held on $75,000 bail.
"We really commend Ramsey for his bravery in filming that incident," Liem, of the Justice Committee said. "Without that footage it's very unlikely that we would have this clear understanding of what happened in this case. We also know that Ramsey has stated that he's been harassed by NYPD officers ever since the video has been released and unfortunately this is something that we have seen in other cases."
Liem declined to comment on Orta's legal case — "but we are concerned," she said.
The Justice Committee is involved in the Cop Watch initiative in New York City.
"We send teams of community members into neighborhoods with cameras to document police activity, because we believe that it's a way of gathering documentation of abuse that needs to be exposed," Liem said. "One of the things about this case that we have not seen in most other cases is the clear video evidence. We are in a moment when this kind of documentation and evidence is more readily available."
"The problem of police brutality and the fact that it's a systemic and ongoing issue is very clear," she concluded. "It's on the people of New York and all of us doing this work to really take this moment to demand and make some changes."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi