“It’s been too damn long,” said Erica Garner, using a bullhorn to address the 150 demonstrators assembled in front of the Staten Island convenience store where police killed her father. As she spoke on Sunday, supporters patted sweat and the occasional tear from her cheeks. She was too immersed in the protest she was leading to notice. “These officers are still on the payroll, two years later, and haven’t been convicted of anything.”
Garner’s father, Eric, died of asphyxiation on July 17, 2014 when as many six police officers at one time held him to the pavement. The killing of the a 43-year-old, African-American, husband and father of six was captured on video and Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who can be seen placing Garner in a chokehold in the video. A Department of Justice (DOJ) civil rights investigation into Garner’s death has yet to lead to any charges. The New York Times reported last week that the DOJ’s Brooklyn office, which has jurisdiction over Staten Island, has argued against proceeding with the case arguing that there is a lack of evidence to suggest Garner’s rights were willfully violated. Meanwhile, the NYPD has said it has completed its internal investigation of the incident and it will conduct disciplinary proceedings following the conclusion of the DOJ’s languishing inquiry.
Ramsey Orta, who filmed the encounter between Garner and the police, is the only person connected with Garner’s death behind bars so far. After complaining of police harassment, Orta reached a plea deal with prosecutors on drug and weapons charges last month and will serve four years in prison.
Seeking accountability, demonstrators on Sunday called for the DOJ to indict the officers involved in Garner’s death. They also want a permanent special prosecutor in New York State to investigate police killings of civilians. Right now, the position is temporary and being filled by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Protesters also called for the passage of a bill before the City Council that criminalizes chokeholds and for the council to approve the Right To Know Act, which would direct police to ask for consent before conducting searches without probable cause—a right already guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Last week, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refused to bring the act up for a vote, despite its widespread support among lawmakers. Instead, she announced a deal brokered between her, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton, in which Bratton pledged to voluntarily implement elements of the Right To Know Act into the department’s patrol guide. Critics of the deal expressed doubt that the department can regulate itself and noted that a provision of that act require cops obtain written consent for warrantless searches is not included in the deal.
Sunday’s protest came in the wake of several recent killings of Black civilians by police in Minnesota, Louisiana and nearby Brooklyn, that have reignited calls for police reform. It also occurred as news from Baton Rouge of a second instance in the past month in which a disaffected military veteran used his training to target law enforcement. The mood on the streets of Staten Island, however, was unapologetic.
“This is what our protest is about: peace, love and unity,” said Erica Garner.
Speaking with the Indypendent after addressing the crowd Garner had a message for U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “We need justice now,” she said. “It’s been two years. Why are you still dragging your feet?”
Offering advice for survivors of Delron Smalls, who was shot by an off-duty cop on July 4th on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Garner added: “Keep speaking out.”