Here's How Far We've Come One Year After the Death of Eric Garner

July 17th 2015

Emma Bracy

Today, it has been a year since Eric Garner was killed by New York police officers. The 43-year-old Staten Island man was choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who believed Garner was committing the petty crime of selling loose cigarettes. Pantaleo says Garner resisted arrest, but thanks to Ramsey Orta, video of the entire incident exists, and in reality, there is little ambiguity as to what happened. Garner can be heard saying, “I’m minding my business, please just leave me alone” shortly before Pantaleo jumps him. Garner then cries, with his hands up, “don’t touch me, please.”

It's been one year since Eric Garner's death. Have we moved fo...

It's been one year since Eric Garner's death. Have we moved forward?

Posted by ATTN: on Friday, July 17, 2015


Then come the now well-known words, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” At least 11 times Garner tells his killers in no uncertain terms that he will die. Not one of the five strong-armed officers heeds his words. One does, however, press Garner’s face into the sidewalk; his body was as precious as his life.

The video is uncomfortable to watch. But that’s the point—isn’t it? It should be uncomfortable to watch a man die. It should be uncomfortable to watch officers of the law grossly abuse their power. Discomfort is good, because it is necessary for change. Discomfort is what spurs you to look up.

Looking Up

The day after the Charleston massacre, I got on the train and took a long, somber ride from my home in Queens up to Harlem’s 132nd Street. That’s where First Bethel AME stands, a chapter of the African Methodist Episcopal church.

The church itself is beautiful. Its deliberate design is both majestic and liturgical. I entered with a sea of people through a tall, arched doorway leading us away from the news cameras and row of double parked cars lining the street out front. I was met by deep red carpet in the foyer, on the other side of heavy wooden doors. I chose to climb the staircase to my right instead of pouring into the main worship hall with the others. I would watch the service from the church’s balcony.

Even from that second, higher level, the church’s tall ceilings stood out as a defining feature. The upward sloping beams, pointing towards to sky, drew my gaze higher.

While I don’t consider myself a Christian, there was nothing more right than being in church that night. I went because I knew there was going to be a vigil and service for the nine victims whose lives were taken only the night before. I went, because I wanted to look up.

That night, I sat next to an older woman in the front row pew of the balcony. I had never met her before, but she could have been my grandmother. She grabbed my hand more than once, holding it for minutes each time. She squeezed what love she had to give out from her body and into mine. I did the same. We nourished each other. We were there for the same reason, united in fellowship not only because of the color of our skin, but because we were both looking up. To look up, can change everything.

To look up is to seek comfort when what is in front of you is uncomfortable. It can be momentary relief, like when I look away from the glow of the screen I’ve been staring at for too long, inhaling deeply as I turn my face towards the ceiling before fixing my eyes on the computer again with the next exhale. But it can be so much more than that, too.

Looking up can turn family tragedy into social change.

Looking Back

"Eric Garner did not die in vain," New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said on Wednesday. “His life mattered. It mattered to these good people of his family. It mattered to his community. It came to matter deeply to his city and his nation." When Eric Garner died, people started looking up.

Alicia Garza first conceived the words “black lives matter” in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was killed. Two years later, Eric Garner’s story helped birth a movement. His was the first in a string of police killings that captured national attention and reignited debates over racial bias in America, particularly in law enforcement. The debates turned to action as people all over the country held marches and protests to turn a hashtag into a something more, crystallizing Black Lives Matter into what it is today-- ostensibly a resurgence of the civil rights movement. Another reminder to look up.

Michael Brown was killed a month after Eric Garner. Another black body disregarded, another life taken at the hands of police. Afterwards, and in light of their son’s killer going unpunished, Mike Brown’s parents requested that "every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera." Then, in December, President Barack Obama echoed their call.

Also in December, a New York grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, Eric Garner’s killer. Here we have a case in which a citizen’s murder is caught on video, and still a grand jury wasn’t convinced to hold the killer accountable. For many, this devastating outcome seemed to prove that body cameras would be an ineffective solution to an endemic problem. Certainly, this decision harkens back to the 1992 acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King to within inches of his life. The brutality was caught on tape then too, but that didn’t foster a shift towards justice. The abusive cops were not held accountable for their actions in that instance either.

Perhaps what’s different in the case of Pantaleo’s non-indictment is the political reaction. Both liberals and conservatives alike were outraged by the outcome. Even Fox News’ Charles Krauthammer called the grand jury’s decision “totally incomprehensible.” Maybe video footage is good for something, even if it’s just a shift in perception. Look up.

In May, Congress approved the first portion of a body camera funding program.

Of course, body camera funding is not the same thing as targeted policy meant to improve the lives of marginalized people in this country, or overarching reform. We haven’t seen any of that, yet. Instead, from Obama we got broad, color-blind policies, ones that look out, but not up. These policies are good at pacifying some progressives, but bad at solving systemic problems.

While there hasn’t been much policy shift in the year since Eric Garner’s death, there has been a shift in Obama’s racial rhetoric. For much of his first term in office, the president was largely silent on matters that pointed to a racial divide in this country. Then, largely after Eric Garner’s death, he began to speak more openly about race. Just last month, President Obama gave the eulogy at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, and he finally seemed to have negotiated the paradox of being black and being the president.

Love Conquers Hate. Look No Further Than This Incredible Momen...

Love conquers hate. Look no further than this incredible moment from President Obama today.

Posted by ATTN: on Friday, June 26, 2015


Obama isn’t the only politician talking about race, which means that this isn’t just a black thing, but a political movement. For example, presidential hopefuls can no longer ignore the issues plaguing communities of color. At least, not those who want to be taken seriously.

Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might be the best example of this. Addressing the 83rd Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, she said:

Race remains a deep fault line in America. Millions of people of color still experience racism in their everyday lives…. More than a half century after Dr. King marched and Rosa Parks sat and John Lewis bled, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and so much else, how can any of these things be true? But they are.

And our problem is not all kooks and Klansman. It’s also in the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s in the off-hand comments about not wanting ‘those people’ in the neighborhood. “Let’s be honest: For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports about poverty and crime and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege.

Moving away from the idea of a post-racial society, Clinton wrestles with the way the construct of race in America informs social reality for people of all colors. Hopefully, others will follow her lead, because in the year since Eric Garner’s death, it has become exceedingly clear that as a nation, we can no longer “hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to name them and own them and then change them." We must, all, look up.