Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times as a New York City police officer squeezed his neck in an illegal chokehold. More officers piled unto the 43-year-old until he was lying motionless on the ground. It was all caught on video from beginning to its sickening end.
It was announced Wednesday that the officer who placed Garner in the chokehold that ended his life would not face charges for the act after a 12-person grand jury reviewed the evidence of the case—including the video recording—and decided that there was no evidence of a crime.
No evidence of a crime.
This news, taken within weeks of another grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., raises a dreadful question: when is it not lawful—or, at the very least, questionable—for a police officer to kill an unarmed black person?
The FBI reported 1,217 deadly local police shootings from 2010 to 2012. Overwhelmingly, those killed were black men and boys like Brown and Garner. Rarely are the cops who kill them ever indicted.
A proposal from President Obama following the non-indictment in Ferguson raised hopes that equipping police officers with body cameras might provide a way out from this terrible nightmare of one killing of an unarmed black man after the other. While body cams might reduce the likelihood that an officer would use force, the Garner case suggests that the tool can’t fix another part of our broken justice system: its inability to hold cops accountable, particularly for killing people of color.
We learned today that there will be no justice for Eric Garner or his family, despite the fact that we all witnessed his strangling. We know he didn’t attack the officer. We know he didn't charge him or reach for his gun. We know the chokehold was banned by the NYPD. We heard him wheeze out, “I can’t breathe.”
What will it take for the everyday Americans who comprise grand juries to review such evidence and see anything but a functional system? Or is the footage of life being squeezed out of Eric Garner what American justice looks like? Eric Garner told the officer who would later kill him, “this ends today.” Will it?