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Eric Garner’s killing and why the police chokehold is so racially charged

On July 19, a memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement near the site of his death in Staten Island. (John Minchillo/AP)

Of all the tragic elements in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, perhaps the most notable is how little it offers that is new or unique. Despite bans and decades of controversy, the chokehold is still apparently in use. It’s still lethal. And it’s still as racially charged as ever.

Dozens of chokehold deaths have come across the country — from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to New York — and while most occurred decades ago, the debate over the manuever remains fractious. One camp says versions of the chokehold can be applied safely. The other condemns the practice as one of the riskiest tools in a cop’s arsenal. The conversation began when the practice was routine — and mired in allegations of racial injustice and discrimination.

In 1982, the Criminal Law Bulletin published an investigation that found the Los Angeles Police Department had used chokeholds at least 975 times in 18 months. Between 1975 and 1982, cops killed 15 people with it — 12 of whom were African American. “What’s all the fuss about?” one resident of upscale Laguna Hills wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1978. “There’s one simple and effective way to avoid death-by-chokehold: Just don’t try to escape from the police.”

But it wasn’t so simple for 20-year-old James Thomas Mincey, an African American whose death in 1982 was a significant chapter in the story of chokeholds.

His mother said he was “brutally beaten” by police in an “unprovoked attack.” According to the Los Angeles Times, police said they stopped Mincey for driving with a cracked windshield. Police said he resisted when they tried to switch his handcuffs from front to back. Witnesses said his mother, who was present, begged the police to stop the beating, but without success.

During the confrontation, which ultimately led to a lawsuit and a $450,000 payment to Mincey’s father a decade later, police threw the young man to the ground, cracking his skull, and beat him with nightsticks. Then one applied a chokehold. The police claimed, according to a Los Angeles Sentinel dispatch, “only eight officers were used to subdue Mincey — who they said ‘fought with superhuman strength’ that suggested that he was under the influence of the drug PCP.”

Local activists were stunned. “Black men are subject to die from strangulation or ‘chokeholds’ as they call them four times more than white men,” local NAACP representative Jose De Sosa told the Sentinel.

Mincey’s death and the chokehold killings of other African Americans made Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates suspicious. In May of 1982, he called for investigation into whether African Americans were more vulnerable to chokeholds than white people, citing “a hunch.” “We may be finding that in some blacks, when it is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times. “There may be something arresting the blood flow after the flow is applied. We’re going to look at that very carefully.”

Less than a week later, backing away from such medically unfounded suspicions, the chief announced a moratorium on chokeholds. The cruel paradox of the chokehold, experts said, meant the victim’s “struggle to free himself only increases the force around the neck. The desire to free himself intensifies and increases the pressure,” wrote Donald T. Reay in a paper published that year in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Other pathologists agreed, saying that the primal “reflex” to get air can actually “aggravate the pressure, inflict more damage.”

Still, cops mourned the demise of the chokehold, with some saying it had made the streets safer. “I think I have to speak for the officers who will be without that particular tool,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times. “I also have to speak for those who are going to, in my judgement, be injured by accelerating the force.”

Others, however, cheered: “I think the chokehold as we have known it in this town is over with,” a city councilor said. “I don’t ever see them going back. The balloon has been popped.”

But it hadn’t yet elsewhere. Four years passed before New York City signed an order saying chokeholds “will not be routinely used” unless an officer’s life was in danger and was the “least dangerous alternative method.”

That didn’t stop cops. In 1991, Federico Pereira, a 21-year-old Queens man, was killed in a case of “traumatic asphyxia,” medical examiners said, according to a New York Times report. Five officers were charged. Charges against four were dropped; the other was acquitted.

The police blamed the death on the rise of crack, which Chief John Timoney said made suspects more difficult to restrain.

Then, in 1993, the department banned the chokehold outright. “It’s not a good regulation,” one officer who remained anonymous complained to the Times. “We need all the means necessary to defend ourselves.”

But what about instances in which a suspect isn’t resisting — and no officer appears in danger? Such appeared to be the case when cops came upon Eric Garner, a hulking 43-year-old Staten Island man who weighed 350 pounds. They were interested in whether he was selling loose cigarettes — “loosies” — which is a crime. “Every time you see me, you want to arrest me,” Garner said.

Garner was a man of many maladies: diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea and a case of asthma so crippling he reportedly couldn’t walk a city block without stopping for a rest. So when the confrontation devolved into violence and New York cop Daniel Pantaleo administered a chokehold, Garner was particularly vulnerable to the tactic. “Preexisting natural disease increases the likelihood of a fatal outcome,” wrote Reay in 1982, “even when [the hold] is applied correctly.”

The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by neck compressions from a chokehold and “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors, the medical examiner said.

His tragic death again sent the country into protests and debate focused on race — the second in two weeks, following a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict former Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown.

The killing also revived the chokehold’s sinister relationship with race. “African American men are being taught a lesson about how this society values, or devalues, our lives,” The Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote Wednesday night. “I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd — and that those who espoused the ‘post-racial’ myth were either naïve or disingenuous. Now, tragically, you see why.”


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