Eric Garner's Death To Go Unpunished Forever Not With A Bang But With Bill Barr
The day before the fifth anniversary of Eric Garner's death, the United States Department of Justice announced that there will be no justice for Eric Garner's family or NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Attorney General William Barr personally stepped in to override the recommendation of career lawyers in the DOJ's Civil Rights Division and ensure that Pantaleo would face no charges, because god forbid a white cop ever faces accountability for murdering a black man.
On July 17, 2014, NYPD officers went to arrest Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes to people who can't afford to buy a whole pack. As the world saw after a video taken by a bystander went viral, Pantaleo took Garner down from behind and then struggled with him until his arms were wrapped tightly around Garner's neck. Other officers put their weight on Garner's back, pushing his chest against the ground. Garner, who had asthma, said "I can't breathe" 11 times before going into cardiac arrest. New York City's medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide. Garner's death caused nationwide protests, and his last words became a rallying cry for the Black Live Matter movement.
Tuesday's announcement was the culmination of nearly five years of investigations and infighting among DOJ officials about whether Pantaleo should be charged with a federal crime for Eric Garner's death. Prosecutors and FBI agents in the Eastern District of New York, who regularly work with the NYPD, were wary of prosecuting Pantaleo. Officials in the Civil Rights Division, however, believed they had a strong case. ThinkProgress described what happened:
Attorney General William Barr made the final decision not to charge Pantaleo personally, a DOJ spokesperson told ThinkProgress "after being briefed by [Eastern District of New York staff] and the Civil Rights Division." He sided with the office that routinely works with NYPD over the civil rights specialists in his own department who have steadily insisted that Pantaleo's conduct was criminal for years. The spokesperson referred further queries about the nature of Barr's thinking to the office that has opposed the charges, which the Washington Post reports won the argument in part by noting Pantaleo's chokehold of Garner only lasted seven seconds.
A seven-second chokehold is long enough to kill a man, but not long enough to be held accountable for it. At least if you're a white cop who has killed a black person.
The decision not to charge Pantaleo with a crime illustrates a problem that frequently arises when law enforcement officials are tasked with policing their colleagues: Police officers and prosecutors don't like going after their fellow police officers and prosecutors. Especially not officers and prosecutors they regularly work with.
State and federal officers work together on any number of issues, and the LEOs in the EDNY office regularly work with and receive information from the NYPD. The rift in the DOJ began not under Trump, but under Obama, and the investigation went through three other attorneys general (Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch, and Jeff Sessions) before landing in William Barr's lap. The Civil Rights Division has always believed it had sufficient evidence to move forward with a case against Pantaleo; the EDNY office has opposed bringing charges against Pantaleo since it was still under the direction of then-US Attorney Loretta Lynch.
After Lynch was promoted to attorney general, it took two years for Civil Rights Chief Vanita Gupta to convince her to let them reopen the investigation. The Civil Rights Division recommended bringing charges against Pantaleo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein under AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, but Rosenstein failed to move forward. Barr personally stepped in to overrule career civil rights attorneys and decline to prosecute Pantaleo.
The statute of limitations on federal charges runs out today, on the five year anniversary of Garner's death, and a grand jury in Staten Island declined to bring charges against Pantaleo in 2014 -- meaning Pantaleo is unlikely to ever face criminal charges.
Under both Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and William Barr, Trump's DOJ has made it clear that preventing police brutality and protecting black Americans are not priorities. The failure to prosecute Eric Garner's killer is only the latest in a string of actions demonstrating this regime's commitment to white supremacy. From slashing the budget to investigate white nationalist terrorist groups to opposing consent decrees to stop police discrimination, both Sessions and Barr have clarified time and again that the DOJ isn't here to protect black Americans. It's here to keep institutional and systemic white supremacy firmly in its place.
After an intense meeting with EDNY officials, Garner's family and civil rights advocates -- including the New York City public advocate -- expressed their disgust with Barr's decision and pressured Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire Pantaleo. Pantaleo has never been disciplined, is still on desk duty for the NYPD, and has even gotten a raise since killing Eric Garner.
"Five years ago, Eric Garner was choked to death," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, standing with members of Eric Garner's family. "Today, the federal government choked lady justice."
Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said, "We're here with heavy hearts because the DOJ has failed us. Five years ago my son said 'I cant breathe' 11 times, and today I can't breathe."
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