A Year Later, the Eric Garner Grand Jury Decision Still Stings
A year ago Thursday, when a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a police officer named Daniel Pantaleo in her father’s homicide, Erica Garner cried, but wasn’t surprised.
“A week before, a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown,” she says, referring to the case in Ferguson, Missouri. “So I wasn’t really surprised. But it still hurt a lot.”
Eric Garner, a 43 year-old father of four, was killed last July 17th. In a scene the whole world saw on video, he was choked to death in front of a parade of police who stood around while he pleaded for a breath of air 11 times. It was an episode so unambiguously senseless that even most white Americans, forced by cell phone technology to confront an ugly but ancient truth about their society, couldn’t find a way to excuse it.
In the time since we’ve seen a numbing succession of police-abuse scandals, each seemingly more outraging than the next: Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Dajerria Becton (the little girl in the yellow bathing suit roughed up by police in McKinney, Texas), Sandra Bland, LaQuan McDonald.
On the surface, all of these incidents are about individual police officers committing seemingly unconnected acts of brutality. But the real evil in these cases often turns out later to live a flight up from the streets, in the offices of politicians, prosecutors and judges, people whose faces seldom appear on Internet videos.
A year out from the infamous grand jury decision, the Garner family has been given a crash course in how all of this works. They’ve learned how police suspected of crimes are treated differently than other criminals, how grand jury secrecy can be used to hide corruption, how the abuse histories of individual officers are buried, and how judges selectively enforce laws.
Maybe most of all, they’re learning how government officials use a host of bureaucratic tricks to stall and delay, working the short attention span of media audiences to their advantage, running out the clock on public anger.
“Time seems to work in favor of the corrupt in these cases,” Erica Garner says.
The Garner episode is really three separate and distinct outrages. The first is what everyone saw on the video. The second, the grand jury investigation ordered by then Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, was more subtle.
See if this story sounds familiar:
A black male is killed by a police officer on the streets of New York in front of many witnesses. The victim has no real history of violence, while the officer has multiple violent episodes on his past. The murder triggers furious protests in the African-American community. A white district attorney somberly pledges to investigate, and convenes a grand jury to consider charges against the officer.
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