Eric Garner wasn’t much of a criminal kingpin—an affable cigarette hustler who peddled tax-free cartons of smokes and “loosies” from his chosen corner on Bay Street in Staten Island, New York. He liked it that way (“Felony money for misdemeanor time,” he called his chosen hustle). That low profile might have led the 43-year-old man’s killing at the hands of the NYPD on July 17, 2014, to have gone unnoticed by many outside of Tompkinsville Park. Instead, an observer, Ramsey Orta, videotaped it and turned it over to the New York Daily News. The footage soon went viral—countless millions watched as police officer Daniel Pantaleo held Garner in a chokehold and pinned him down on the concrete. Garner kept gasping the words “I can’t breathe” until he died.
The video became a flash point in the national debate over police and the criminal justice system. Conservatives saw a 350-pound black man with a long criminal record punished for not obeying police instructions. The left encountered the most clear-cut case yet of excessive force by the police against unarmed people of color. Likewise, the Garner video helped foment the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, as activists began adopting Garner’s final words as a rallying cry. Even NBA stars like Derrick Rose and LeBron James took to wearing “I Can’t Breathe” on T-shirts as a demonstration after a Staten Island grand jury elected not to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo in late 2014.
Today, Garner is remembered more as a symbol than as a man—a problem that Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi helps correct with his essential new book I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street. Taibbi’s exhaustively reported narrative fleshes out Garner’s complicated personal life and legacy. But it also interweaves the systemic forces that led to his fatal encounter with NYPD and the current legal limbo of his family’s quest for justice. Garner’s was already being choked by forces beyond his control before Pantaleo’s arm was ever locked around his throat: draconian housing laws, the racist implementation of broken windows and stop-and-frisk policing (endorsed by Republicans and Democrats alike), the punitive nature of the decades-long war on drugs, and the slow and labyrinthine machinations of the New York court system. “Garner’s death,” Taibbi writes, “and the great distances that were traveled to protect his killer, now stand as testaments to America’s pathological desire to avoid equal treatment under the law for its black population.”
Taibbi will appear on Saturday, October 28, for a book signing and an interview with attorney and Chicago Police Board president Lori Lightfoot as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. We discussed his examination of the Garner case and how a Laquan McDonald version of the book might look.
What inspired you to write about the Garner case?
I had done a lot of work on the whole concept of community and broken windows policing from my previous book, The Divide, and I had spent a lot of time in courts talking to people who had been busted for minor offenses. The premise of that book was that our justice system was moving in a direction where people were being very heavily punished for minor crimes while colossal financial crimes were going on unpunished, so I had this intellectual interest in the subject. I don’t live that far from Staten Island, so I drove out to the park where Garner hung out and just started to ask people about what their feelings were about the decision by the grand jury in the case.
My initial thought was just to do a Rolling Stone article about how it was an example of everything that goes wrong with community policing. But what ended up happening was that people just told me a lot of stories about Eric Garner, and I kind of liked him as a person and was really interested in him as this character and focused on that instead. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could have written for a magazine. It had to be a book.
It’s a biography of Garner, but you’re also documenting the machinations of criminal justice in America and New York. It’s a small story in a bigger story.
I think the concept became: This is a really interesting person who I think was really likable, and if I described him accurately, readers would be able to connect with [him]. Through his story you see that he was kind of a [prism for] the entire recent history of the criminal justice system. He was front and center of all of the major developments going back 30 or 40 years—from mass incarceration to the inequities in sentencing between cocaine and crack and then finally broken windows, where he became the ultimate example of what they were looking for when they designed that kind of policing program. I thought his story was a way to describe all this history and issues, but in the way that was human and novelistic and something that people would be invested in.
There is a lot of drama in this book, even though we know the simple version of this story and saw Garner die on video with our own eyes.
It’s funny, I actually made a point of not watching the whole video until the day I had to write the death scene. I had seen a couple of little clips, but once I started learning a little bit about him, I decided I didn’t want to watch the whole thing until the moment when I had to describe what happened. In the same way, I wrote the story so that readers would still be surprised and horrified by what happened even if they know what’s coming. In order to do that, I had to get deep enough into his life that people would be invested in it, even knowing that he was going to die.
The video is valuable, and obviously that’s a big reason why we’re talking about this case, but it’s a limited perspective, and it seems like a lot of people viewed it through their own political prism. Your book tells a more nuanced story.
The Eric Garner story in a lot of ways was the ultimate Twitter-era news story because it had this explosive video that instantly produced reactions. It evolved as a news story exactly the way almost everything else evolves: people instantly took sides and reduced everything to a series of cliches. They took their positions, dug in, and screamed at each other about it.
But as amazing as (the video) was for spreading awareness about what happened and providing necessary outrage, there are limitations to that kind of journalism. Sometimes you have to go into a story and not have a preconceived idea about what happened, what things are. Garner, for instance, was consistently portrayed in the media as this pseudo vagrant who just sold loose cigarettes. But one of the first things I learned about him completely contradicted that narrative: He was actually kind of an entrepreneur who had people working for him; he had a whole operation going.
We were told in the media that he was arrested for selling cigarettes. But that’s not exactly what happened—it was a lieutenant who drove by that park in the morning who probably saw Garner. Having already been yelled at because the block looked unpleasant in Comsat meetings, two dingbat detectives were told to go back and pick [Garner] up. They were probably ordered to arrest him regardless of what he was doing. So all this is more complicated than a 140-character summation of these stories. To me, it was an exercise in the limitations of Twitter-age journalism.
Some people might assume that a liberal Rolling Stone journalist might write something hagiographic about Garner, but this book doesn’t shy away from the complications of this life. You portray him as likable and sympathetic, but you outline his many flaws too.
I talked to the family about that. Specifically, I talked to Erica [Garner] and said ‘Look, I think your father is going to come away looking sympathetic in the book, but I think it’s more powerful if people know everything about him—the good parts and the bad parts.’ She said that they wanted it do it that way. I think the story is more powerful if people see him as a human being who had all sorts of things going on [in] his life. He didn’t always make the best decisions but was basically trying. Sometimes he was fighting against his own bad decision-making and bad luck—all these things were factors in what happened, but I think it made it more tragic, not less.
People might think, OK, this is a liberal Rolling Stone writer—this book is going to be a broadside against the police. But while the police don’t come out looking great in the story, I think it’s really not that either. The way I look at it, cops are in an incredibly stupid bureaucratic environment that kind of drives a lot of their behavior.
“I can’t breathe” were his last words, but [the phrase] also describes his life, suffocated by all of these disparate forces.
The metaphor is big and clumsy, and it’s not exactly subtle, but it definitely holds. He was being squeezed from all sides. He was not safe on the street from either people on the street or from the police. His health was a problem. He was having money issues. He didn’t have a stable place to live. And he was just kind of constantly hustling to find a little bit of room for himself, and it just didn’t pan out. And in the end he literally had no place to go.
You’d expect conservative politicians and some of these cops to be the villains of this story—or would at least come out the worst—but you also go after liberal politicians and intellectuals for promoting broken-windows policies. You even ding Malcolm Gladwell for normalizing some of these ideas.
I think there’s no way to look into this issue and not see some culpability on the liberal, intellectual side. Anybody who’s spent a lot of time in a city like New York or Chicago or LA knows that a lot of the politicians [who] push these policies get there with the heavy backing of liberal money and liberal coalitions. The classic formulation in New York is somebody like (former mayor Michael) Bloomberg, who’s a social liberal. He’s in favor of gay marriage, but he’s an ass kicker on the policing stuff. It became intellectual chic, not just on the right but on the left. And the funny thing is that broken windows actually does make a lot of sense if you just present it the way Malcolm Gladwell did. But the problem with broken windows is that, in practice, it looks totally identical to a lot of these horrible repressive things that went on during the period after the Civil War with the black codes. It’s just rehashing and reimagining a lot of the same policies. George Kelling, who invented this theory, wasn’t trying to fool anybody—I think he genuinely believed that it worked, and on some level it does. But the history is what makes a difference.
One problem is that there’s still no single clear reason why crime dropped over the 90s and 2000s. Now all of sudden, especially in Chicago, we’ve had a spike in violent crime. On some level, the broken-windows policing in New York got a lot of credit for the drop in crime—and it may have had something to do with it—but we don’t really know.
It’s the inability of social scientists to really pin down what the drop in crime can be attributed to that makes it hard, because a lot of people are presenting stop and frisk as a trade-off. This was actually argued when the policy went to court. One of the city’s main lines of defense was—well, this works. Even though they were being accused of massive civil rights violations they didn’t get up in court and say, ‘No, we didn’t do that,’ they got up and they said, ‘Yeah, well, look at the great results.’
So that’s a big problem for people to get past intellectually when they’re thinking about this stuff: It’s bad if you live in one of these neighborhoods and get thrown against the wall 40 or 50 times a year, but the trade-off is I get to go shopping in Times Square and feel safe. But I don’t necessarily think that’s true, and I think a lot of cops don’t really believe it either. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to a lot of cops who were willing to speak on the record for this book, but I think most of them feel the same way: the job sucks now. The stat-chasing aspect of it, the constant shaking people down for minor violations—they don’t want to be doing that shit. They want to be, you know, busting real criminals. There’s an argument to be made that broken windows isn’t what was behind the drop in crime.
If you were to write a Chicago version of this story about Laquan McDonald, do you think it would tell a similar story?
Yeah, one of the reasons I didn’t do that is because New York has the infamous distinction of being ground zero for a lot of the more regressive policing policies. The first time they really went after crack dealers and the demonization of crack, that was New York. Mass incarceration was New York, stop and frisk was New York, so it’s appropriate to do it here. But I was in Chicago when the ACLU released their stats about Chicago’s version of stop and frisk, which I believe showed that the rate of stops was four times higher in Chicago than New York at its peak. So Chicago has a lot of the same problems as New York, and the Laquan McDonald story was very similar to the Garner story in terms of the city’s unwillingness to disclose information until well after it happened.
How did you feel about Rahm’s response to that case?
Politicians, and especially mayors—they’re all the same. No matter what they say, when they [take] office they always end up feeling like they need cops in order to rule the city and to be reelected. They all end up believing that the route to reelection is a drop in the crime rate, particularly to make sure certain neighborhoods are policed correctly. That’s where broken windows comes into play, because it’s such an effective tool for keeping certain kinds of people out of certain neighborhoods. And no matter how liberal you are when you come in, you end up making a deal with the devil.
I think that’s part of the story here with the Garner case, where [New York City mayor Bill] de Blasio comes in as an enemy of stop and frisk but even he ends up making a devil’s bargain with [former New York City police commissioner Bill] Bratton. All these guys may talk a big game before they get elected, but eventually they feel they need the cops and the commissioners and the way to the promised land is just giving the police more leeway.
Politicians like Rahm or de Blasio have a polite way of reinforcing these bad policing policies, and then you have someone like Trump who just says, “Hey, let’s double down on stop and frisk!” in this openly racist way.
Trump represents an extreme end of the spectrum, but the lesson of this book is that while the Republicans with a Trump or a Giuliani might be ardent enthusiasts and unapologetic advocates for these policies, the Democrats will find a way to also be for it in the end, or at least won’t stand in the way of it happening. I think that was one of the frustrations of at least some members of the Garner family. They went into this with the expectation that they would have all sorts of advocates within the Democratic Party who would help them along the way. And they gradually became disillusioned and found that institutionally there really wasn’t a whole lot of help on either side.
And most people’s complaint about Trump on this issue is mostly about his tone and the way he talks about it.
Everything about Trump is about tone and taste. A lot of the things that he says policy-wise aren’t that far off from what we’ve seen before, it’s just that the package presented with Trump comes with this extraoffensive baggage. Part of the backlash that led to the Trump phenomenon was this feeling among white America that they were tired of listening to all the talk about Michael Brown and Garner and Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice, saying, ‘Hey, cops get shot too!’ I think that emboldens politicians like Trump.
Did you learn anything talking to cops in New York City?
Definitely. There were a few cops who were willing to be quoted, though not many who currently serve in Staten Island, unfortunately. But there were some who were whistleblowers in stop-and-frisk cases who are still in the police force. I don’t think anything that they told me was particularly revelatory, but the notion that seeking stats has ruined the job is something that I think a lot of cops talk about. They don’t want to be going to corners and busting people for refusing to obey a lawful order or obstructing government administration—they’re bullshit charges.
One cop I talked to, Pablo Serrano, says the reverse is also true: not only are they being forced to rack up all this activity with meaningless stuff, but when a felony happens they’re asked to kind of quiet that down because they’re also in charge of reporting the crime rate. So sometimes they’ll get something that’s a real burglary or a break-in and they’ll be asked to make it go away because the captain doesn’t want too many felonies in their districts. So they’re in this ridiculous position where they have to constantly hassle people, but [they’re] also disincentivized to pursue real crime. It’s everything that the job isn’t supposed to be. So I think even though there’s a lot of anger from cops about the way they’re perceived, when it comes to talking about the job, I think a lot of them feel the same way. v