Still Can’t Breathe: Eric Garner’s Death A Cause For Hurt And Hopelessness One Year Later


In the Staten Island community, Eric Garner was the big homie known as Big E. The 43-year-old’s hustle was selling un-taxed cigarettes, a.k.a. “loosies,” outside of a beauty supply store in Tompkinsville on Staten Island’s North Shore, which many deemed small potatoes compared to the pills and dog food-—slang for heroin—sold in the park across the street. When New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton introduced “broken-window policing,” in the early ’90s, an approach that stems from the belief if authorities aggressively tackle petty offenses, the idea was that large-scale crimes will less likely happen. The result: cracking down on un-taxed cigarette sales and their sellers became a target.

Just one year after footage of officer Daniel Pantaleo placing Garner in a fatal, banned NYPD choke hold went viral, news broke of a $5.9 million settlement that had been reached, leaving many on Staten Island to wonder if a dollar amount could ever right a wrong.

Standing at 6-foot-3, 350 pounds, Garner’s size and stature wasn’t a reflection of his personality. Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll tell you the big guy was a big kid, whose last words “I Can’t Breathe” became the rallying cry for a movement his death would ignite. “He was a big kid,” says city worker, Donald Willis. “He was huge, but he was gentle.”

On a dreary July day, VIBE went to Staten Island to speak with community members about how life has been in the year since Garner’s death. Candid and unapologetic, a homeowner who asked to remain anonymous admitted to wanting to take action in his own hands: “Justice would be me doing the same thing, not even being a police officer. Just being black beefing with a white dude and end up choking him out. Whatever they do to him should be done to the officer.”

With additional commentary from author and professor MK Asante, Rev. Al Sharpton and rapper-activist Tef Poe, many reiterated the same sentiments: the hurt is still real and the sorrow, still palpable. The opinions from community members are raw, unfiltered and sans political correctness.

Here are their thoughts about Garner, the settlement and life in Staten Island one year later.

READ: Losing Hope: How VIBE’s ‘Militant Editor’ Went From Ready To Weary

Donald Willis, 58, City Worker

The Settlement:
“Yeah I knew Eric Garner. I used to buy cigarettes from him. But look, you can’t put no price on life. I’m sure if they could have their father back, they wouldn’t want nothing else but they’re father back. Just like my kids, you can’t give me any amount of money for my kids. It not about the money. They giving up all that money. What happened to the officer? Why did they give Eric Garner’s family all that money if the officer was correct?

Who’s paying for his death? The tax payers? I’m a tax payer. I work. Am I paying for his death? How about the officer that killed him? What has he paid yet? We’re paying for protection of him. I drive past the officer’s house every night to get the garbage. They don’t have any protection at Eric Garner’s house but 24/7, a officer is sitting outside the cop’s house who killed him. Who’s paying for that, too? Tax payers? We’re paying for all this? Now, we gotta pay for Eric Garner, too?”

Renee King, 45, Licensed Practical Nurse

The Video:
“What effected me more than the police response was the EMS response because I work in health care—I’m a licensed practical nurse. They didn’t offer him any CPR. They didn’t put any oxygen on him. That’s what disturbed me more than what the police officers did. I think the EMS is equally as responsible as the police department and nobody is saying that. That’s what upset me more because we expect that from the police to abuse our black men. I did not expect that response from EMS to leave that man to die without administering CPR.”

What Has To Change:
“I think police officers—and this is not a black or white thing—this is about sensitivity training and knowing how to respond to people appropriately and how to speak to people with respect and dignity. They need awareness training, sensitivity training and if the city of New York doesn’t realize that across the board, they’re always going to have these problems.”

The Settlement:
“Do I think that’s that enough? I don’t think you can quantify somebody’s life with a number. I don’t think any amount is enough, and you need to put that in quotes.”

READ: Eric Garner’s Family Releases Song “This Ends Today”

Tariq Said, 38, Owner of Richmond Hood Company

Life in Staten Island:
“It’s been a little weird out here in Staten Island. There’s never been a great relationship between the NYPD and the hood community, but I don’t even think people really know the steez of what happened. He broke up a fight! He was doing a righteous thing! Then the officers came and the knuckleheads were like “F**k that. The boys are coming. I’m out of here!” So, Eric Garner was just there. They had a history with him and they probably picked on him.”

The Good That Has Come From Eric Garner’s Death:
“I think to some degree in activism, [Garner’s death] helped people have a platform and come together to have a louder voice. Also, I’m sure there was an element of separatism that existed because people feel their way. Some might say, ‘Oh, well, he shouldn’t have been resisting arrest.’ Well, he shouldn’t have been f**ked with that day. He still would’ve been alive.”

The Settlement:
“It sounds like a large sum of money. I think loss is a difficult thing to deal with across the board. I hope the money does them better than they’re able to do now. Money doesn’t always make everything better but they’re without a dad, and hopefully that pays for college. Everything that he would’ve struggled with as a man to provide for his family. Hopefully, that does some type of justice for his family.”

Rev. Al Sharpton, 60, Activist

What Needs to Change:
“I think the challenge is we have to sustain the attention on social media and cable television because what entrenched powers try to do is wait you out because they feel they have permanent power. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted a year, so you can’t have a three-month or six-month protest and think it’s going to overturn a 200-year system. When we think of apartheid, Mandela was in jail for 27 years. The bad thing is you gotta stay in for the long haul. If you don’t, you’ll end up back in the same position.

If The System Failed Garner’s Family:
“I feel the system was successful in being resistant. We have made oecumenical gains against a system that felt you couldn’t penetrate it at all. In the last year since [Eric Garner’s death], we’ve had six cops indicted in Baltimore. The question is: can we sustain it to where we see permanent change?

Brandon Ross, 30, Freelancer

Life in Staten Island:
“Everybody is still trying to garner trust from the police and politicians. It’s still that back and forth. It’s the same that it’s always been. Police still drive by and look at you in your face like you’re a suspect. Sometimes I come out of my house and say, ‘What can I do to not look suspicious?’ [This] can be mentally daunting.

The Settlement:
“I think that $5.9 million is a cop out. That $5.9 million is relatively cheap than what it may take to change legislation. I mean it’s a benefit for the family because that’s income, but you can never really replace a loved one.”

Deacon John McBeth Sr., 51, Staten Island’s Youth4Justice

Life In Staten Island:
“Growing up on Staten Island, it was almost expected by young people and adults [that] if you had some type of negative interaction, you were going to catch a beating from police, and that was on every side, not just for African-Americans, but for everybody. It was almost expected.”

The Good That Has Come From Eric Garner’s Death:
“I shutter to use the word “good,” but as a believer, we always believe God will take things that are bad and turn them to good. With respect to my hometown, one of the by products [of his death] is community policing in and of itself. They’re trying to pilot programs where community leaders actually patrol with the officers, and the community is also stepping up.”

The Settlement:
“My personal belief is that they could’ve held out for more. I’m not in their situation and I know very often families are either ill advised or they’re in situations they feel they have to get out and their expedience becomes more important than voice. Unfortunately, I can’t speak that voice for them. With that said, no one’s life is worth $5 million, $10 million or $75 million. We should not be putting a price on no one’s life in that manner.”

MK Asante, 32, Author and Morgan State Professor

The State of Progress:
“I think the progress that has been made hasn’t come from the police—the progress has been community progress. The people who are affected by Eric Garner, affected by Baltimore, affected by this oppression have come together and really learned a lot this last year. People are organizing and they’re doing a good job of that. The progress isn’t happening from the police force, the progress is happening where it needs to happen. I think in a lot of ways, the progress comes from us.”

The Settlement:
“That dollar amount doesn’t mean anything compared to the life that was lost. Even if it was $50 million, you took a father, son and husband away, so there’s no dollar amount that can do anything. Obviously the family should be compensated, but there should be money that goes into communities for training and education so that way, these things can be prevented.”

One Year Later:
“I’m angry as hell. James Baldwin said, ‘To be black in America is to be in a constant state of rage.’ Yeah, I’m still angry about it. I’m enraged about it. I refuse to not be enraged about it. And for every Eric Garner, there’s 10,000 faces that you’ll never see. So when I’m looking at his face, I’m not looking at just his face, I’m looking at all the others that we’ll never see that weren’t on video or don’t have photos.”

Tef Poe, 28, Rapper and Activist

One Year Later:
“I think for black America, we needed to start defining what progress looks like for ourselves. We can’t always use the European, Anglo-Saxon measures to define success or to define whether or not the needle is moving forward. You look at black youth, even older black people, there’s an on-going dialogue within our psyches right now about police brutality. Some might say we’ve been talking for about 300, 400 years. Where’s the action? I think we’re starting to see the action depending on the region and depending on how people think. But we’re not here for the short term. It took us 400 years to get in this predicament. It could take just as much time to get it off of us. People have to stop looking for a microwave revolution. You can’t just put revolution in a microwave, press 30 seconds and a year later, the world is completely different.”

The Settlement:
“I talked to someone about that briefly. I don’t have too much of an opinion about that. All I can say is that I’m sure no dollar amount can equal what his life is really worth. But it’s really weird how the system will say these cops are innocent. They let [the officer] walk for killing this man, but it’s almost an admission of guilt someway by paying the family. “

What Needs To Change:
“When you look at revolutionary situations, people are innovative and I think it’s time for us to become innovative. We have all the tools, all the education so we can really lead the pack with something new. You go to other countries and people have made a decision to divest from their oppression. For us, there has to come a point as a people where we become very arrogant about our dealing with police and our dealings with the system. Period. That arrogance has to lead us to where we have a sense of pride that’s so strong, we set up something. I don’t know what it is, but we set up something that serves itself as a bit of perimeter to protect us from these things.”

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