‘I Can’t Breathe’ Examines Politics, Policing and the Death of Eric Garner

The name of the book is emblazoned across its cover 11 times, once for each time Eric Garner can be heard gasping out that line – “I Can’t Breathe” – in a cellphone video taken three years ago as he was put into a chokehold and taken to the ground by a New York City Police officer.

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Fading to black from top to bottom, the words become more and more faint, just as they did when Garner was lying face down under a pile of officers outside a beauty supply store on a Staten Island sidewalk during his last moments of life.

Matt Taibbi’s freelance work has appeared in Playboy, the New York Press and The Nation, among others. He has worked as a Rolling Stone reporter since 2003 and has authored more than a half-dozen books covering presidential campaigns, the 2008 financial collapse and income inequality in American society.

Taibbi’s latest, “I Can’t Breathe,” details what led up to and what followed Garner’s death on July 17, 2014. The 43-year-old New Yorker died after being put into a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo as he attempted to arrest the 6-foot-3, 350-pound father and grandfather – an incident viewed millions of times in the years since, thanks to video captured by Garner’s friend, Ramsey Orta. The officers claimed he had been selling untaxed cigarettes on the street.

A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a New York grand jury declined to press charges against Pantaleo or anyone else, sparking public outrage and protests. Garner’s last words became a rallying cry around the country for those protesting police brutality.

“But Eric Garner isn’t a symbol,” Taibbi writes in the book’s epilogue. Only in death did Garner enter the national consciousness. But Taibbi paints the picture of a flawed man. He’s not a hero. Every hustle he ran, everything he did, he did for his family. He also let them down time and again.

A hulking man with an even bigger personality, Garner’s friends recall him mostly for his “runny nose, sloppy dress and fat feet.”

But even more than Garner himself, the book examines New York’s response – the justice system, the mayor, the NYPD – and the societal factors that made the situation possible in the first place: a changing neighborhood, changing policing practices and a litany of other circumstances Garner had no control over.

It also came down to some poor timing and bad luck.

“Wrong day, wrong time, wrong moment in his life,” Taibbi writes, “and as it turned out, the wrong arresting officer.”

Taibbi is in town this weekend for the Chicago Humanities Festival, and sat down with Chicago Tonight for an interview at the Whitehall Hotel.

Chicago Tonight: Why were you interested in this case?

Matt Taibbi: A few books ago I wrote a book about white collar crime. And then my last book previous to that was about the criminal justice system, basically, about why don’t rich Wall Street guys go to jail, and then conversely who does go to jail? So during that time I got interested in community policing, the new policing strategy that took hold in the early 90s. So I was interested in it naturally because of that.

And then honestly, I was interested in it because I wanted to get out of sort of opinion writing and do something that was more about storytelling. The Garner story appealed to me for a number of reasons because it’s such a powerful story on the one hand, it would be a challenge. And then also, I liked him, you know? I went out into the street and talked to people (who knew him) and found him really likeable and thought, this is a way to tell an important story without being negative all the time.

The key goal here is to get people to sympathize with somebody they don’t know.

You write in the book that Eric Garner is not a “symbol.” Who was he?

I think everything sums him up. I hate to be cliché about this. And this is another thing that is maybe a reaction to being in journalism for too long and being in the Twittersphere for too long, I think we have a tendency to try to encapsulate people because we don’t have time to really get to know them.

The speed aspect of it requires that we make everybody represent something, you know? I had guilt about that too over the years. A lot of the Wall Street stuff that I wrote was black hats, white hats – not necessarily unjustly. It was simplistic and I didn’t always get to say who people are.

I think Eric Garner was, and this is what I was trying to say in the book, he made a lot of mistakes in his life. Some of them were irreparable by the time he was in his 40s, but he was still trying and he was surrounded by problems and trying to fight them off and all these things are universal and interesting.

I think there was some frustration among his friends that he was only ever described in this one way and powered through in a couple of sentences.

Why did you believe you were the right person to write this book?

I didn’t. I thought at the beginning, maybe in a little bit of a naïve way, that “Oh I want to cover this story, it’s such a powerful story.” And why not, I’m a journalist, we should be able to cover anything. Then in the middle of it, I realized there were things I wasn’t going to be able to understand, there were people that were going to be guarded when they talked to me. And I started to have doubts about it.

But talking to my editor, Chris Jackson, helped a little bit and he pointed out correctly that this is a story about white America too. It’s not a black story or a white story. That’s one of the reasons that these things get forgotten, actually. In the news business we sort of psychologically put things in buckets, right?

It’s just one of these things that subconsciously happens to us as news consumers, we put things in these little compartments in our head, but I don’t think that’s accurate. These are American stories, and that’s sort of the key part of the story, this is sort of the unseen aspect of it. It’s the people you don’t see who are the most important characters.

The video of Garner being tackled in a chokehold has been seen millions of times. What happens to this case if that video doesn’t exist?

We would never have heard of it, probably. The one thing that maybe would have made it a story is the fact that the medical examiner ruled it a homicide. But it’s possible that the medical examiner wouldn’t have done that without the video.

I think minus the video that they would’ve written this up as someone who died of natural causes during a routine arrest and there would have been no way to refute that, probably. This probably happens a lot.

How did these driving forces that Garner had no control over – police, politics, protests – coalesce around one incident?

Garner was a person who, among his other qualities, just had bad luck. He just had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Exactly as he comes of age and gets married and suddenly has a financial need, he goes into crack dealing at the very moment when paranoia around that is at its absolute height. He gets sentenced to prison when the sentencing disparities kick in for the first time. He goes to a New York prison when New York is suddenly pioneering the prison-making boom.

Had he gone to Staten Island five years earlier or 10 years earlier and gone to that neighborhood he would have had a really long run of probably not even being talked to by an officer. In the end all these different forces circled around him and he just had no means of escape. Maybe that’s not bad luck, maybe it was just inevitability at that point.

When you get out of prison, your options are limited. As he got older, your options get smaller and smaller. I think that range of choices got smaller as time went on. In the end he was sort of squeezed in from all sides.

The second half of the book examines the political and judicial response to Garner’s death. Do you believe people were just trying to score points for themselves?

Yeah, they’re trying. There’s a whole biosphere of people who profit politically or financially out of cases like these. The system is designed to have a binary response to these cases – it’s give money/not give money. That’s pretty much all there is. And within the matrix of all that, there’s a bureaucracy where all these people are employed to make that determination.

And separately from that, there are the political calculations. Somebody like (former Richmond County District Attorney and current NY Congressman) Dan Donovan who gets to go to Congress on the strength of the fact, basically, that he didn’t indict a police officer.

New York officers follow what’s called “broken windows” policing, where rather than focusing on stopping major crimes, they put their energy into maintaining order and stopping smaller violations (like selling loose cigarettes on the street). How do the police officers you spoke with feel about this?

I had a range of perspectives. A lot of it didn’t go into the book. Pedro Serrano (an officer who did speak on the record) he talks about how this is what happens when (this type of response) goes wrong. This is why these stops are f---ed up, basically. We do too many of them and inevitably somebody talks back or does something and an unnecessary situation turns into a death.

I had other people say, think of the logistical problem these people have. They’re being sent by superior officers who tell them to do x, y and z, and responding to citizen complaints. Some officers I talked to hinted to me that one of the things that may be going on here, you’re dealing with the same person over and over again within what the law allows, but the law in this case, it’s in Garner’s favor.

I did have a number of cops say to me, “I can’t say this, but I didn’t sign up for this s---. I watched ‘Serpico,’ I wanted to be busting kingpins and now I’m rolling drunks.

I think the stats regime is a stressor for a lot of police officers – not all of them, some of them like it, there’s no question about it – but for some of them it’s like, “OK you want me to jack up this guy who’s not doing anything, meanwhile we know where the brothels are, we’re not going in there, we know where the drug dealers are. So there’s frustration about it for sure.

Matt Taibbi (Photo credit: Robin Holland)

And that what happened in Garner’s death, correct? He had just broken up a fight when officers try to arrest him for selling cigarettes.

It’s pretty clear if you follow the timeline what happens. A lieutenant drives past the corner on the way to the prescient, sees Garner standing there looking like Eric Garner, tells these two meatheads to go pick him up. What one of the other cops I talked to said was, you can’t just tell the guy to move, you have to get a number (by making an arrest). Because everything is about numbers – that’s one of the things that drives me crazy – they want you to make numbers.

So you can see on the tape that they’re not even entertaining other possibilities. They just have to get (Garner) into the car. But rather then let him go and go back to their lieutenant empty-handed, they do this crazy thing and that’s on them.

Could you have written a Chicago version of this story based around the Laquan McDonald shooting?

Sure, absolutely. There were some similarities to the Laquan McDonald case. The Laquan McDonald case is one you actually didn’t hear about for a year because of some of the same things that happened in the Garner case. And the lessons of the Laquan McDonald case are the same as in this story, which is that people make the police brutality issue to be about a few bad apples and cops that make bad decisions in a few frenzied seconds in the middle of what everybody knows is a very difficult job.

You’ve got these guys who are basically uneducated driving around, they’ve got a mandate to impose order and some of them do dumb and crazy s---, and some of them have histories of doing dumb and crazy s--- and they’re still out there on the street.

But to me the far more insidious thing is this whole structure that rests behind that, that is designed to make sure nothing ever happens to fix that problem, to weed out guys who for whatever reason can’t do it in the right way anymore. The Laquan McDonald case is a classic example of that, they successfully covered it up for awhile and that’s not something that they did in a few seconds, that’s something they did over the course of a year. So that’s more dastardly, in my opinion.

Daniel Pantaleo hasn’t faced criminal charges stemming from this case. Could that change in the future? Where is he now?

(He’s on) desk duty.

There’s two things that could happen to him. No. 1, there’s a federal civil rights prosecution that could still happen. There’s a grand jury and I know as recently as about a month ago, they were still interviewing people.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that the people who were doing the federal investigation are pretty hardcore, that they’re real about it. On the flip side, (U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions has said openly that he doesn’t believe in these kinds of prosecutions.

Then there’s the internal discipline track, which has to wait for the federal process to play out. So until there’s a decision or not a decision there. The complaint against (Pantaleo) has already been substantiated internally, so the question is will he have an internal police trial? And if there is an internal police trial and he’s found guilty, will he be punished?

What do you think will be the lasting legacy of Eric Garner and this case?

It’s so hard to tell.

Maybe Eric Garner will be that sort of character (who is forgotten as time goes on). Or maybe this will be a watershed moment because it was the first, really, in a cascade of so many of these cases – including Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown – so who knows?

Black Lives Matter existed before this, but it definitely accelerated after that moment, so maybe that becomes a huge factor. But my instinct is it’s going to take a while and it will be the next generation of these incidents that will do the trick. That’s my guess.

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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