ERIC GARNER’S LEGACY

Eric Garner’s death while being detained by Staten Island police gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, and it exemplified the tensions felt between people of color and law enforcement across America.  Bestselling author and journalist Matt Taibbi takes us inside the case, as detailed in his new book “I Can’t Breathe:  A Killing on Bay Street.”

Aired on October 25, 2017. 

TRANSCRIPT

I CAN'T BREATHE.

I CAN'T BREATHE.

I CAN'T BREATHE.

I CAN'T BREATHE, THE LAST WORDS OF ERIC GARNER.

THE STATEN ISLAND MAN WHO WHILE DETAINED FOR SELLING ILLEGAL CIGARETTES PLED FOR HIS LIFE AS HE WAS PLACED IN AN ILLEGAL CHOKE HOLD.

HE DIED.

WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

ERIC GARNER BECAME ONE OF THE GROWING LIST OF PEOPLE KILLED BY POLICE AND I CAN'T BREATHE BECAME A NATIONAL RALLYING CRY FOR BLACK AMERICANS SEEKING JUSTICE REFORM IN WHAT WAS PERCEIVED AS YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF POLICE BRUTALITY.

I CAN'T BREATHE IS THE TITLE OF MATT TAIBI'S NEW BOOK.

THE BOOK NOT ONLY INVESTIGATES DETAILS SURROUNDING THE CASE WHICH GAVE BIRTH TO THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT BUT EXPLORES WHO ERIC GARNER WAS AS A PERSON AND DECONSTRUCTS MANY FACTORS.

HE IS ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING AND OPINIONATED YOUNG JOURNALISTS WORKING TODAY AND I AM PLEASED TO WELCOME HIM TO THE SHOW.

WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

YOUNG BOY OUR STANDARDS.

BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY THIS BOOK 'I CAN'T BREATHE' IS REALLY AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THIS SITUATION IN ITS ENTIRETY.

VERY OFTEN WE WERE GETTING CLIPS.

I'M WONDERING WHAT TOOK YOU FROM HEARING THE STORY IN THE NEWS AS IT WAS PRESENTED TO ACTUALLY GOING TO STATEN ISLAND TO RESEARCH THIS BOOK.

I NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT THIS SUBJECT.

WHEN THE GRAND JURY CAME DOWN WITH THE DECISION NOT TO INDICT THE POLICE OFFICERS IF YOU REMEMBER THERE WAS FURE IN THE CITY.

I JUST DROVE OVER THERE OUT OF CURIOUSITY AND DECIDED TO START TALKING TO PEOPLE ON THE STREET ABOUT WHAT THEY WERE FEELING AND THINKING.

PEOPLE STARTED TO TELL ME STORIES ABOUT ERIC GARNER THE PERSON.

I THOUGHT HE WAS FUNNY, CONTRADICTORY.

I ENDED UP SORT OF CREATING A KIND OF BIOGRAPHY PROJECT OUT OF IT.

FROM THERE IT TURNED INTO HOW DID THIS PERSON WHO IS SUCH AN INTERESTING BUT FLAWED PERSON, WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM?

WHY DID HE DIE?

HOW UNNECESSARY IT WAS?

THAT IS HOW I CAME TO BE WRITING IT.

IT IS INTERESTING YOU SAY YOU WERE INTERESTED IN HIM VERSUS THE SITUATION.

IT SEEMS ALMOST AS IF YOU CAN'T SEPARATE THE TWO, THE PERSON HE WAS VERSUS TIMES AND CIRCUMSTANCES THAT HE LIVED UNDER.

I'M MORE INTERESTED IN WHAT WE SEEM TO LOSE IN A LOT OF THESE STORIES IS WHO THIS PERSON WAS.

TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT WHAT YOU LEARNED ABOUT ERIC GARNER THE MAN.

HE WAS A REALLY INTERESTING GUY.

WHEN I WENT UP TO THE STREET EVERYBODY HAD A STORY ABOUT ERIC GARNER.

HE HAD A FUNNY VOICE AND EVERYBODY DOES AN IMPERSONATION OF HIM.

HE WAS ARGUMENTIVE.

HE WOULD RATTLE OFF SPORTS STATISTICS AND DARE PEOPLE TO LOOK IT UP AND FIND IF HE WAS WRONG.

HE WAS ALWAYS RIGHT, NEVER WRONG ABOUT ANYTHING.

HE WAS A HEROIC EATER AND WOULD FOLD PIZZAS IN HALF AND EAT THEM LIKE TACOS.

HE WAS DEVOTED FAMILY MAN, COMPLETELY ABOUT HIS KIDS.

HE HAD SIX CHILDREN AND HE HAD A WEIRD QUIRK TO HIS PERSONALITY WHERE HIS CLOTHES WOULD LITERALLY FALL OFF HIS BODY.

EVERY DOLLAR HE MADE IN THE STREET HE GAVE TO HIS KIDS AND THAT WAS JUST ONE OF THE WEIRD DETAILS THAT MADE UP WHO THIS GUY WAS.

HE WAS ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE LAW FOR MUCH OF HIS LIFE ON THE ONE HAND.

ON THE OTHER HAND HE HAD A GOOD HEART.

EVERYBODY LIKED HIM.

HE WASN'T VIOLENT.

HE WAS COMPLICATE SKPD INTERESTING AND THAT'S WHY I FOUND MYSELF ATTRACTED TO HIS STORY.

TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE FORCES THAT LED TO THE SITUATION.

FIRST OF ALL, THE BOOK ALMOST MAKES IT SEEM LIKE AS TRAGIC AS IT WAS IT WAS ALMOST INEVITABLE THAT ERIC GARNER WOULD HAVE DIED IN THIS WAY AT THE HANDS OF THE POLICE.

ONE OF MR. GARNER'S CHARACTERISTICS IS HE HAD ROTTEN LUCK THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE.

HE WAS ALMOST LIKE THE ZALEGA OF MODERN ERA OF POLICING INNOVATIONS.

HE WAS A CRACK DEALER AT THE TIME THAT WE WERE MAKING CRACK DEALERS PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE.

HE WAS BEING SENTENCED TO PRISON HERE IN NEW YORK STATE WHEN NEW YORK WAS AT THE CENTER OF THE MASS INCARCERATION BOOM.

WHEN WE SWITCHED POLICING STRATEGIES TO BROKEN WINDOWS THEORY WHICH HEAVILY EMPHASIZED GOING AFTER MINOR CRIMINALS THAT IS THE MOMENT WHEN HE SWITCHED FROM DRUG DEALING TO DEALING CIGARETTES AND BECAME ESSENTIALLY A MINOR SORT OF CRIMINAL ON THE STREETS.

HE ATTRACTED A DISPROPORTIONATE AMOUNT OF ATTENTION FROM THE POLICE BECAUSE OF THAT.

THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE HE WAS ALWAYS SORT OF WALKING INTO THE BUZZ SAW OF THE NEW POLICING STRATEGIES.

AT THE END HE HAD SO MANY CONTACTS WITH THE POLICE THAT IT BECAME THE CENTRAL FACT OF HIS LIFE.

AND I THINK WHAT FINALLY HAPPENED IN THE END IS THAT HE WASN'T EVEN SELLING CIGARETTES THAT DAY.

THAT WAS THE MOST FASCINATING PART THAT I FOUND OUT.

I TALKED TO OVER 20 PEOPLE THERE THAT DAY AND NOT ONE PERSON REMEMBERS HIM SELLING A CIGARETTE.

HE WAS FEELING UNWELL, WAS IN THE BATHROOM, CAME OUT OF THE BATHROOM, BROKE UP A FIGHT AND HE WAS WINDED.

HE WAS LEANING AGAINST THE WALL CATCHING HIS BREATH WHEN THE POLICE CAME AFTER HIM AND DECIDED TO PICK HIM UP.

YOU CAN SEE ON THE TAPE IF YOU WATCH IT SORT OF THIS BEWILDERMENT IN HIS EYES BECAUSE HE CAN'T PROCESS THE FACT THAT THEY WANT TO TAKE HIM IN AT THE ONE MOMENT IN HIS LIFE WHEN HE IS NOT DOING ANYTHING.

THAT'S PART OF THE SUBTEXT AND THE DYNAMIC OF THE WHOLE INCIDENT IS THAT HE WASN'T ACTUALLY GUILTY OF THE CRIME.

TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT THE PROCESS THAT HAPPENED AFTERWARDS BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS WAS A VERY CONTROVERSIAL POLICE PRECINCT THAT GARNER WAS IN OR THAT HE WAS STOPPED IN AND ALSO THE FACT THAT THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DECIDED NOT TO PRESS CHARGES.

YEAH, SO ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WAS REALLY SURPRISING TO ME AS A REPORTER AS I DISCOVERED RESEARCHING THIS, THE WHOLE PROCESS OF TAKING THESE CASES TO GRAND JURIES -- IN NEW YORK CITY EVERY FELONY CASE HAS TO BE HEARD BY A GRAND JURY.

NORMALLY THEY HAVE STANDING GRAND JURIES.

THEY SIT THERE AND HEAR MULTIPLE CASES A DAY.

IF YOU HAVE A STABBING THE COPS WILL BRING IN MAYBE THE VICTIM, THE WEAPON, ONE WITNESS.

THEY WILL GO IN.

GRAND JURY WILL TALK IT OVER.

TWO HOURS LATER THERE IS AN INDICTMENT.

THAT'S THE WAY IT USUALLY HAPPENS.

IN THIS CASE THEY CONVENED A SPECIAL GRAND JURY THAT ONLY HEARD THIS CASE.

INSTEAD OF DOING IT IN A FEW HOURS, THEY TOOK MONTHS TO CONSIDER THE CASE.

THEY HAD 50 WITNESSES COME IN.

THE SUSPICION IS BY EVERYBODY WHO WAS SORT OF INVOLVED IN THE ACTIVIST COMMUNITY SURROUNDING THIS CASE IS THAT ESSENTIALLY THE D.A. PUT ON A DEFENSE CASE INSTEAD OF TRYING TO SEEK AN INDICTMENT.

WHEN I LOOKED AT IT I FOUND THAT THERE WAS A PATTERN OF CASES INVOLVING POLICE DEATHS OR POLICE SHOOTINGS DATING BACK TO THE '60s, THE FAMOUS RISE OF 1964 A KID NAMED JAMES POWELL WAS KILLED BY THE POLICE, EXACTLY THE SAME PATTERN.

GRAND JURY THAT TOOK MONTHS HAD DOZENS OF WITNESSES.

IN THE '90s ANOTHER GUY IN STATEN ISLAND, SAME THING, GRAND JURY TOOK SEVEN MONTHS, LOTS OF WITNESSES, NO INDICTMENT.

IT'S A PATTERN, A TRICK WHAT THEY USE, I THINK, TO NOT INDICT POLICE OFFICERS.

WHAT IS IT YOU WANT READERS TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS?

WHAT IS THE LESSON TO LEARN ABOUT ERIC GARNER?

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPENS WITH THESE CASES IS THAT PEOPLE COMPARTMENTALIZE THEM IMMEDIATELY.

WE ARE TRAINED TO HAVE EMOTIONAL RESPONSES, IMMEDIATELY HAVE OPINIONS AND THEN WE SORT OF TUCK THEM AWAY IN THE CORNER OF OUR MINDS AND FORGET ABOUT THEM.

IN THIS CASE WITH THESE POLICE BRUTALITY CASES WE REMEMBER THE NAMES, SOMETIMES REMEMBER THE POLICE OFFICERS.

AND IN THE MINDS OF MANY PEOPLE WHO READ THE STORIES IT IS JUST A STORY ABOUT BAD COPS WHO GO UNPUNISHED.

WHAT I HOPE PEOPLE TAKE AWAY FROM IS THERE IS A HUGE BUREAUCRATIC POLITICAL SYSTEM THAT RESTS BEHIND THIS PROBLEM AND IT HAS TO DO ESSENTIALLY WITH I THINK WHITE URBAN VOTERS WHO DON'T WANT WHITE AND HISPANIC MEN IN THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS.

THAT'S THE SUBTEXT OF POLICING STRATEGIES DESIGNED TO HELP GIVE POLICE THE TOOLS TO KEEP PEOPLE FROM GOING ACROSS CERTAIN LINES.

I THINK UNTIL PEOPLE CAN CONFRONT THAT FACT, THIS PROBLEM WILL CONTINUE TO HAPPEN.

THERE WILL CONTINUE TO BE MORE AND MORE INCIDENTS BETWEEN THE POLICE AND YOUNG MEN OF COLOR.

SO HOLDING UP A MIRROR TO SOCIETY.

MATT, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS BOOK, RESEARCHING IT AND PUTTING A MORE HUMAN FACE ON ERIC GARNER AND JOINING US ON THE SHOW.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME ON.

THANK YOU.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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