5 Years After Eric Garner's Death, Activists Continue Fight For 'Another Day To Live'

Jul 17, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 1:10 pm

The news that federal prosecutors will not charge a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, who repeated the phrase "I can't breathe" almost a dozen times while being arrested for an alleged misdemeanor, closed another door for Garner's family and police reform activists seeking accountability.

Now, five years after Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is accused of putting Garner in a fatal chokehold, remains on the force with a desk job. He was never charged criminally by local prosecutors and only just faced a disciplinary trial in May — the outcome of which is still pending.

It's a reality that adds more fuel to a movement against police brutality, one that started generations ago and continues with fervor.

"There's not one day that goes by I don't think about Eric Garner and all these other cases that I'm working on," said Nupol Kiazolu, 19. "These cases fuel the work that I do."

Kiazolu was about to start her first year of high school when Garner was killed. Now, she is a full-time college student and the president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York (not affiliated with the national organization). She said her activism is driven by a sense of survival.

"All we're doing is fighting for equity and another day to live," she said.

And there is power in resistance, said Darian Agostini, 24, a community organizer with the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

"We do this work because we love each other," Agostini said. "We love ourselves. We love our communities."

His job includes working with young people, educating them on their rights when encountering police. He draws from his own experience growing up in Brooklyn during the height of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program — the practice of detaining, questioning and searching civilians for contraband.

"I don't know anyone who does organizing that's not also fighting for themselves," Agostini said.

He recounted how police frequently questioned him as a teenager about why he was walking in his own neighborhood or searched him aggressively as he was coming home from school. These interactions started when he was 14.

"Police officers jumped out of unmarked cars and threw me up against walls and emptied out my book bag while I was, like, coming home from school," he said.

Thick skin

The work to change police culture — or even just raise awareness around how young black men and women interact with police — requires stamina and pacing. And a thick skin.

"They tried to smear me and others who worked with us as being anti-police — it's a lie," said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "We are not anti-police. But we are pro the people of the city of New York — all of us — and we will not be mistreated."

Butts has been working on police misconduct issues for nearly a half century, and in 1983 traveled to Washington, D.C., with other activist ministers to call on their congressional representatives to hold hearings in Harlem on police brutality.

In September of that year, people testified for nearly seven hours on excessive force, questionable arrests and street harassment by New York City police officers. All are issues that are still being raised today. At that time, black officers also reported extensive discrimination by their white colleagues on the force, according to a 1985 congressional report that came out of the hearings.

"Obviously, the energy that we expended trying to get justice and move in certain ways didn't work as well as we would have liked it to work," said Butts.

Current NYPD leadership will argue that much has changed, even in the five years since Garner died, and that there is a deliberate attempt to increase trust between communities and officers.

In 2015, the NYPD implemented its new neighborhood policing program with a core mission of building relationships between officers and community members. Commissioner James O'Neill told WNYC in late 2018 that the program was influenced by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed Garner's death.

Earlier this year, O'Neill announced he was implementing reforms to the NYPD's disciplinary system based on recommendations from an independent panel.

But those relatively small changes provide little comfort to those seeking some sense of justice for Eric Garner or others mistreated by police.

"What actually erodes communities' faith in the NYPD, their trust in the NYPD, is this idea that even if police do something wrong, they won't be held accountable," said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the advocacy group The Brooklyn Movement Center. "That sends a message to communities that the NYPD and the government doesn't actually care about them."

It's now up to Commissioner O'Neill to decide whether Pantaleo will be disciplined — or fired, as activists demand. O'Neill said that he's still awaiting a decision from the administrative trial judge who heard Pantaleo's case in May and that the Justice Department's decision to bring no charges won't affect that process.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Federal prosecutors announced yesterday that they will not charge the New York City police officer who's accused of killing Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, during a misdemeanor arrest. That incident happened five years ago today. Garner's death and the fact that that officer still remains on the force has added fuel to a movement against police misconduct. WNYC's Yasmeen Khan has the story.

YASMEEN KHAN, BYLINE: After prosecutors announced their decision, Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, reacted with anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWEN CARR: This is not going down like this because if it was one of their loved ones, it would have never went this far.

KHAN: Carr became an activist because her son died. For other activists, it's about human dignity, survival. Here's Nupol Kiazolu, who's 19.

NUPOL KIAZOLU: All we're doing is fighting for equity and another day to live.

KHAN: She's a full-time college student and the president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York. Sometimes her work just involves showing up for people whose family members were killed by police.

KIAZOLU: There's not one day that goes by I don't think about Eric Garner and all these other cases that I'm working on.

KHAN: It's heavy. For Kiazolu and other young black activists, Garner's death felt like a reminder that it could happen to them.

DARIAN AGOSTINI: I was boots on the ground weeks after he was killed.

KHAN: Darian Agostini, who's 24, was in high school during the height of the NYPD stop-and-frisk program, the practice of detaining and searching people for contraband.

AGOSTINI: Police officers dumped out of unmarked cars and threw me up against walls and emptied out my book bag while I was, like, coming home from school.

KHAN: In 2013, a federal judge ruled that practice racially discriminatory and unconstitutional in the way it was carried out. Agostini says these experiences drive his work as a community organizer for the advocacy group Make the Road New York. He works with young people, educating them on police stops, and speaks at a lot of rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGOSTINI: Thank you. Peace, peace. Good afternoon, community.

KHAN: Like this one, advocating for new legislation related to police transparency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGOSTINI: Today we are here to continue to urge the state legislature to pass...

KHAN: There's a long game involved in this work. Congress even held hearings in Harlem on misconduct by New York City police officers. That was in 1983.

CALVIN BUTTS: No one was really addressing this primary issue.

KHAN: Calvin Butts is the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He and other activist ministers pushed for the hearings. He remembers being maligned as anti-police even though black police officers also reported discrimination by white colleagues.

BUTTS: We are not anti-police. But we are pro the people of the city of New York, all of us. And we will not be mistreated.

KHAN: People testified for nearly seven hours on police abuse of power, excessive force, questionable arrests - issues still being raised. Commissioner James O'Neill says things have changed. He's making some reforms to how the department handles discipline. He spoke about it earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES O'NEILL: We don't ever fear scrutiny. We welcome it. Our primary goal is to have a disciplinary system that is fair, clear and consistent.

KHAN: He also implemented a neighborhood policing program meant to improve trust between communities and officers. But those changes provide little comfort for people seeking consequences for the death of Eric Garner or others. Darian Agostini says that's where working on these issues can be draining.

AGOSTINI: There's nights when I'm home, and I'm struggling in my own brain trying to process the loss of someone or the inaction of a government institution.

KHAN: But he says he finds power in that too because the community still cares and still shows up. For NPR News, I'm Yasmeen Khan in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "MULAGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.