“Every time you see me, you wanna mess with me!” Eric Garner yelled at police last Thursday shortly before he was killed. “I’m tired of it. This stops today!”
On Monday afternoon anti-police brutality activists took Garner’s words to heart as they held a heavily attended sidewalk press conference and rally outside City Hall to call for sweeping changes to the New York Police Department.
Garner, 43, a father of six, died shortly after a sidewalk confrontation with several NYPD officers in Tompkinsville, near the Staten Island ferry landing. In a video taken by an onlooker, Garner expresses frustration with NYPD officers who are preparing to arrest him on the suspicion of illegally selling individual cigarettes. When Garner resists being put in handcuffs, Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabs him from behind, puts him in a chokehold and throw him onto the concrete while several other police officers pile on Garner. With his head pressed down against the sidewalk, Garner cries out, “I can’t breathe!” multiple times before losing consciousness.
However, Monday’s press conference did not focus on the actions of one rogue cop. Instead, participants insisted on calling into question the context around Garner’s death, one in which Black and Latino males are overwhelmingly targeted by the police for petty “quality of life” offenses as Garner was for selling “loosies” – single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.
“We need deeper, fundamental changes to the policies that allow the NYPD to create these types of interactions,” said Josmar Trujillo of New Yorkers Against Bratton, an ad-hoc group of community activists that opposes Police Commissioner William Bratton’s return to lead the NYPD. “We also need the [police] leadership to pay the political price to send a message to public officials all throughout New York City.”
New Yorkers Against Bratton is demanding a federal investigation into the NYPD’s conduct, calling for Bratton’s resignation and an end to the NYPD’s “Broken Windows” policy, a theory that rests under the belief that in order to prevent more serious crimes, smaller crimes must be fought at all costs.
For Nick Malinowski, a social worker, journalist and a member of New Yorkers Against Bratton, the responsibility for Garner’s death falls on Bratton.
“With him in charge, they can’t work on any sort of cultural shift with the NYPD, so he’s not the right person for the job,” Malinowski commented.
Trujillo says Bratton has failed in his duty to the people of New York. “He is unable to control his own police officers,” Trujillo observed, “and he has never done anything to address the systematic brutality that keeps on happening.”
Also present at Monday’s press conference was Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He has studied NYPD’s Broken Windows approach to policing closely. His conclusion? Broken Windows has done nothing but criminalize young African Americans and Hispanics.
“This whole encounter [with Garner] was the result of this over-policing of communities of color that’s tied to the broken windows theory,” Vitale said. “The idea that [he] had 30 arrests, that’s proof itself that broken windows policing doesn’t work, because in a way, he was right back out there again.” Vitale said.
“All [Broken Windows] does is criminalize people, take up resources, and create a breakdown in police-community relations,” Vitale added. “The commitment to broken windows policing means that the way the police fight serious crime is this broad criminalization of young people of color. That’s the problem.”
Whatever the immediate fallout from Garner’s death, some feel justice will only come in the form of structural change. “For me personally, it’s hard to talk about any kind of justice without talking about changing the system that’s in place,” Malinowski said. “To me, the arrest of a police officer does not equate to justice when someone’s dead, when someone’s life has been taken. I don’t know what justice looks like when you have a paid city employee kill somebody.”