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If cameras can't hold police accountable in Eric Garner's death, what can?

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Eric Garner died on camera for all to see, but the officer who killed him walks free

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Last night, I spent the better part of two hours walking the streets of midtown Manhattan, chanting with angry but peaceful protesters about the death of Eric Garner. We waved signs. We took pictures. We called loved ones, asking them to join us in this demonstration against the systemic injustice of a state that could take a man’s life in broad daylight and yet hold no one accountable. If America hadn’t reached its breaking point on the topic of race in 2014, this surely had to be it. Because on a Wednesday afternoon — less than a week after a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury failed to hold police officer Darren Wilson responsible for the death of Michael Brown — a Staten Island grand jury, despite video evidence that went viral in the months before the hearing, decided not to indict another white police officer in yet another unarmed black man’s death.

The officer in question, Daniel Pantaleo, expressed regret after the ruling, saying in a statement, "It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss."

Esaw Garner, Eric Garner’s wife, would not be consoled. "Hell no," she said. "He's still working, he's still getting a paycheck, he's still feeding his kids, and my husband is six feet under."

"My husband is six feet under."

Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the kind of loss Mrs. Garner has suffered. Black and brown people are brutalized everyday. Black and brown people die. But how it happened should make us wonder how far systemized white supremacy can bend reality despite all our best efforts. After the marching and chanting, all I have are questions. Mainly, when is it enough?

When is it enough, when even the facts are ignored?

Eric Garner, a horticulturalist who left the NYC Parks Department due to severe asthma, died on July 17th, 2014. He was 43. On the day he was killed, he’d just broken up a fight outside a beauty shop when the police approached him. We know why they were there: Garner was known in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island for selling illegal loose cigarettes. It was far from a new charge; according to The New York Times, he’d been arrested twice for the crime this year alone. This time, however, he was firm. He’d done nothing wrong. "I’m tired of it," he said. "This stops today." He didn’t threaten. He wasn’t armed. But four officers pulled him to the ground, with Officer Pantaleo putting him in a chokehold. Garner said, "I can’t breathe." Then he died, left in handcuffs on a Bay Street sidewalk whole minutes before any attempt was made to revive him.

The kind of chokehold Officer Pantaleo administered to Garner has been banned by the NYPD since 1993. By August 1st, the New York Medical Examiner’s Office had determined that Eric Garner’s death was a homicide, the result of a heart attack brought on by the chokehold in addition to his asthma and other ailments.

In other words, Eric Garner was murdered. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, however, walks free.

"I can't breathe."

When is it enough, when even technology is ignored?

In the months since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a national conversation has erupted concerning whether or not police officers should wear on-body cameras. It’s an imperfect solution; for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while generally in favor of the technology, rightly argues that police must be barred from selectively choosing what to record. However, in a case like Michael Brown’s, as ugly as it was with conflicting witness testimony, many accept that, if someone had a camera on the scene at the time, Darren Wilson may have been indicted last week. As a result of this ongoing conversation, President Obama this week announced federal funding for 50,000 on-body cameras, and the NYPD will begin testing its own cameras as soon as Friday.

We hoped a camera would make a difference for Eric Garner. Ramsey Orta, a friend of his, recorded the entire confrontation on his phone and shared it with the Daily News. The video was uploaded to YouTube, where it was seen by thousands, reuploaded by other viewers, and seen by millions more online and on television. The particulars of Garner’s death that afternoon are a mystery to no one. And all it took was a man with a camera and YouTube to turn us all into witnesses. It sounds like judicial science fiction. We might have caught a whiff of real progress in our justice system with an indictment based on that recording. If not, at least an admission of fault on the part of the officers involved. We might have lionized the internet in its ability to expose real oppression in our society.

Instead, a black man was murdered in front of a live audience and a white cop went free. Meanwhile, the man who recorded the video was himself indicted the following month on weapons charges.

When is it finally enough?

It defies logic that Officer Pantaleo went free. It is an outrage, not only because it is tragically, pathetically unremarkable that black men should die at the hands of police year after year. We know the game is rigged. Such is life in America. No, it’s an outrage chiefly because we watched this murder happen. Together. And we can watch it still, on TV and on our phones, knowing that murder is wrong, but now knowing that a black man’s life taken for all to see is still worth less than a white cop’s career.

Eric Garner was killed in the street in broad daylight on camera for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. And a grand jury called his death a justifiable homicide. That is not only deplorable, but absurd. If the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and every black man killed just in the last decade don’t expose how rooted in horror and despair our society is, this surely must. After the ruling, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) asked reporters, "What more does America need to see to understand we have a problem in this country?" Put another way, we were all just told that the Emperor is wearing clothes, and it has never been clearer that he is naked save for a Klansman’s hood.

We were told the Emperor is wearing clothes, but it has never been clearer he is naked save for a Klansman's hood

Yesterday’s events are so absurd as to even unite conservatives with liberals on the subject, seemingly because we all know what wrongdoing looks like. As Sean Davis at The Federalist writes, "Just going on the plain language of the law, the police officer who killed Garner certainly appears to be guilty of second-degree manslaughter at the very least." Elsewhere, Attorney General Eric Holder has already committed the Department of Justice to opening a civil rights investigation into Garner’s death.

And maybe that’s enough. Maybe this is the moment where we can finally come together and admit to this American sickness that continues to afflict us. Maybe. But until we can agree on the certainty of oppression with the same conviction we feel about the certainty of Eric Garner’s unlawful death, "maybe" is all we will have. So we will keep marching. And the cameras will keep rolling.

Justice for Eric Garner

A video posted by Kwame Opam (@kwames) on

Update 12/6: A previous version of this editorial stated that Ramsey Orta uploaded his cellphone video to YouTube. That was inaccurate, as he shared the video with The Daily News. The piece has been updated to reflect the error.