'The police department is like a crew. It does whatever they want to do." Those words — from an old-school hip-hop song by the group Boogie Down Productions — were the soundtrack in my head as I read "I Can't Breathe," journalist Matt Taibbi's gut-wrenching account of the death and life of Eric Garner.
As the whole world knows, Garner died in 2014 after being placed in an illegal chokehold by a New York City cop who was trying to arrest him for supposedly selling a “loosie” tobacco cigarette on a Staten Island street. The book is a deep dive into every aspect of the case, including its legal impact, which is minimal, and its cultural and political impact, which has been profound.
But the most revealing stories Taibbi tells — the ones that made me put the book down because it got too heartbreaking — are about other African Americans, mostly male and poor, who were stopped and frisked, strip-searched, sexually assaulted, set up, beaten, or killed for the tragic reason that racist cops didn’t like them, or the even more tragic reason that these kinds of humiliations are ordained by U.S. law and policy.
There is Ibrahim Annan, who in 2014 got roughed up so badly by NYPD officers that he was hospitalized for three weeks and his ankle had to be surgically reconstructed. The crime the officers were trying to arrest him for? Marijuana possession. In the kind of revealing detail that makes “I Can’t Breathe” compulsively readable (after I put the book down, I would pick it right back up because I needed to know the next outrage), Taibbi tells us that the city billed Annan $700 for the ambulance that took him to the hospital.
Carnell Russ was not fortunate enough to escape with his life. In 1971, a Pine Bluff, Ark., cop shot him between the eyes after Russ asked for a receipt when the cop required him to pay a traffic ticket on the spot. The officer was acquitted by an all-white jury, but at least that cop was prosecuted, unlike NYPD officer Donald Brown, who, in 1994 in Staten Island, asphyxiated to death an unarmed black man named Ernest Sayon, setting off protests but no grand jury indictment.
All these stories relate to one another and to the Garner case, which gives “I Can’t Breathe” the feel of a police procedural. The narrative unfolds like an episode of “The Wire,” but without the comic relief — or that show’s grudging empathy for the cops. Some readers might object to Taibbi’s tone of sustained outrage; the book is not objective, if that means giving equal weight to the concerns of the police and the victims of their misconduct. Taibbi by no means portrays people subject to police abuse as saints. Garner had been found guilty of a number of crimes, although he was probably not guilty that day of the accusation that led to his death, and other victims of police brutality lived what you might call blemished lives. But Taibbi is mad as hell at the police and the politics that empowers their brutality.
Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who put Garner in the chokehold, is, in Taibbi’s account, a muscular hothead given to touching black men’s private parts. Before his encounter with Garner, he racked up more civilian complaints than the average cop, costing the NYPD thousands of dollars in settlements with people who claimed he abused their rights or planted evidence on them. That amount pales in comparison with the more than $5 million Garner’s family reportedly received in a civil settlement, but Pantaleo remains a sworn officer of the NYPD. In what passes for good news in the sordid mess, he is now confined to desk duty.
Taibbi appropriately directs the reader’s anger to others outside the usual police suspects. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio won election by campaigning to end the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which a federal judge later found discriminated against African American and Latino men. De Blasio invoked his own biracial son to express his concerns about the NYPD, but he appointed as police chief William Bratton, who championed the “broken windows” concept of policing, which focuses on enforcement of low-level infractions and made it possible for the cops to repeatedly lock up Garner simply for selling untaxed cigarettes.
Even the reason selling loosies is so lucrative comes in for Taibbi’s steely rage. New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, faced a revenue shortfall after $1 billion was spent rescuing Wall Street from the financial crisis. He had pledged not to raise taxes but still increased the municipal cigarette tax from 8 cents to $1.50 a pack, providing the city with $250 million in cash and creating a business opportunity for Garner to import cigarettes from Virginia, where they are much cheaper, and sell them in New York at a profit.
If for me the book sometimes gets too bogged down in legal procedure — and I’m a law professor — the average reader might be even less interested in New York’s “Civil Practice Laws and Rules provision 5704(a)” and the ins and outs of filing Freedom of Information Act requests to police departments. Much of the horror of U.S. criminal justice that Taibbi depicts isn’t legalistic or nuanced: It’s brute abuse of power by cops and prosecutors who know they can get away with it.
Ramsey Orta filmed the famous video of Garner’s encounter with the NYPD. He’d ignored the cops’ illegal order that he stop recording, and later that night, the police drove past his home, shining a spotlight at his window. It was a warning that Orta was a targeted man, and he didn’t help himself by selling drugs. Orta ended up with repeat arrests for crimes he had not committed and crimes he had. The night came when the cops executed a search warrant at his home, armed with cameras in addition to guns. They didn’t find any contraband in the house, but they arrested Orta and his mother anyway, filming the whole thing. A police source told the New York Daily News: “He took the video. Now we took the video.” Orta now is serving time in prison, formally for drug crimes but in reality for filming truth to the NYPD’s power.
“I Can’t Breathe” reminds us that Staten Island is America. A month after Garner’s death, an officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Several weeks later, a Cleveland cop shot to death Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old. A few months after that, Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore. All black men and boys who have been treated in death more like criminals than the cops who killed them, not one of whom has gone to jail.
I have a cop friend who invokes a standard line when the Garner case comes up: “If you can say ‘I can’t breathe,’ that means you can breathe.” My buddy intends this as an expression of solidarity with the thin blue line, but it comes across as victim blaming: Even this thug’s last words were a lie.
But Garner’s death lamentation was true. The New York medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, caused by “compression of neck (chokehold).” Taibbi suggests that Dan Donovan, then the Staten Island district attorney, engineered the grand jury process so that Pantaleo would not be charged. Donovan’s reward, from the conservative voters of Staten Island, was his election to Congress, based in part on their approval of the way he handled the investigation of Garner’s death.
Taibbi’s account is bleak. For African Americans, the criminal laws work too well and the civil rights laws not well at all. A black man has no rights that a cop is bound to respect. Even liberal politicians sell out because they are afraid of the police.
The inspiration, if any, comes from the people who resist, even if that is mainly a losing prospect. Garner’s stepfather meticulously cares for the street corner where Garner was killed. His daughter Erica emerges as the hero of the effort to make the world pay attention to what happened to her father.
Some of Garner’s associates testified to the grand jury, even though the word on the street was that cops would never be prosecuted in Garner’s death but that the police would target people who cooperated with the investigation — and the word was right on both counts. But these folks told the grand jury what happened out of a sense of justice, something people in Garner’s world almost never get back from police or prosecutors.
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel & Grau. 322 pp. $28