It has been exactly one year since Eric Garner’s death. During that time, his name has become synonymous with police brutality and police injustice, not only in New York City, where he was killed, but also worldwide. The haunting phrase “I can’t breathe” — which Garner uttered eleven times as he died on camera — has morphed into a recognizable cry for justice and has appeared on everything from T-shirts to protest signs.
That’s thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, co-founded in 2013 by three women actively involved in organizing around social issues. In a conversation with the Village Voice, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who launched the movement with Alicia Garzia, reflected on the past year and lambasted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for what they say is its inability to prioritize the investment in black lives over its pursuit of mass criminalization.
On July 17, 2014, Garner was stopped on Staten Island by New York City police officers who suspected him of selling untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies.” Though Garner denied the charge, he was placed in a prohibited chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo during the course of the arrest. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide a month later, but a Staten Island grand jury convened to review charges against Pantaleo refused to indict him. Pantaleo has been on desk duty ever since, stripped of his gun and shield.
The NYPD reportedly conducted an internal investigation of its own into Garner’s death but is waiting to release its report pending the results of another investigation by the Department of Justice. On Monday, the Garner family settled a wrongful-death suit against New York City for $5.9 million, one of the biggest such agreements in the history of the city.
To mark the anniversary of Garner’s death, a number of groups have planned events in New York City and around the country today and tomorrow to commemorate Garner’s life. Tometi plans to attend the one being held at 5:30 p.m. in Columbus Circle to honor Garner.
“My thoughts are that, still, justice has not been served,” Tometi, the executive director of immigrant-rights’ group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, tells the Voice. “The family is still seeking justice despite any type of settlement that’s been paid. That’s not going to bring back Eric Garner, and I know that his family is seeking justice beyond a paycheck. They know that no amount of money can replace their father, their son, their brother.”
Cullors, the director of the Truth and Reinvestment project at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California, echoed Tometi in her assessment of the settlement and highlighted what she says is the nation’s continued disregard for black life.
“I think what I’m feeling the most at this moment is just how much helplessness existed in that moment as he struggled to breathe and literally screaming out he couldn’t,” Cullors says. “I hope his death is not in vain. I really hope this generation can interrupt the ways in which law enforcement has really gone rogue.”
Cullors went on to call the death of black Americans at the hands of police a public health crisis.
“I choose to call it a public health crisis because black folks in particular are experiencing law enforcement violence,” she says. “And I say violence because it’s not just killing; it’s consistent harassment; it’s the ways in which our government prioritizes the moneys, the pouring in moneys into law enforcement and actually divesting from us being able to have access to education, access to proper healthcare, access to shelter, access to healthy food.
“Mass criminalization is deliberate. The impact of that mass criminalization is an over-incarcerated, completely traumatized, decimated community that has to deal with the aftermath of the war on drugs, the war on gangs. We’re being forced to pick up the pieces, and we have no resources to actually pick up the pieces.”
Cullors and Tometi believe the proper response to deaths at the hands of police such as Garner’s (or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore) isn’t more police officers. In fact, they believe there should be fewer officers in black communities. They’d rather let those communities define the terms of their safety by focusing on other forms of intervention.
In New York City, the response has been to call for more police officers. On June 22, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to a budget deal for fiscal year 2016 that will add 1,300 police officers in New York City, which will balloon the force to nearly 36,000 officers.
“We absolutely have too many cops in NY,” Tometi says. “We’re highly, hyper-policed. It’s been OK’d because there’s a logic that says more police are going to be a solution to a crime — which is not true, which has never been true. But this is built off of a racist logic that says those poor people over there need to be stopped. But, really, they’re criminalizing our poverty, our existence. And they’re making space for real estate brokers, for businesses, for people to gentrify our neighborhoods. That’s their endgame.”
The city reported in June that while crime is down overall, shootings are on the uptick, with homicides spiking in certain areas in Brooklyn and the Bronx. NYPD commissioner William J. Bratton said that it was “criminals, career criminals, killing and shooting other career criminals.”
Cullors and Tometi don’t dispute the statistics, but they disagree on how best to tackle the crimes being committed.
“There’s an issue of violence in our community, no doubt,” Cullors says. “I don’t want to minimize it. There is harm being caused in our community.”
But she points out that crime happens in all communities. The problem, Cullors argues, is when those statistics are used as justification to criminalize or harass an entire community. Tometi is critical of the de Blasio administration for agreeing to the budget deal that added more officers.
“We presented all these other alternatives for what the money could be used for, but they still said no, we’re gonna side on the fact that you all need this kind of enforcement in your communities,” Tometi says of meetings she’s had with administration officials. “They weren’t listening to us.”
Tometi laughs at the idea that the de Blasio administration is considered the most progressive in the country; instead, she calls them “sell-outs” and includes the Progressive Caucus of the City Council in her assessment.
So what is the next step for the Black Lives Matter movement? In the past few days, the movement has focused its attention on Sandra Bland, a woman who died in police custody in Texas three days after she was stopped for failing to signal a lane change. This news, Tometi and Cullors say, is just another example of the long work ahead.
“To be clear, prosecution is not the end-all and be-all to me,” Cullors says. “I think what we need to see is real structural change happen in the next couple of years, whether that’s through policy but also through the culture that we live in that is deeply racist and in serious denial around that racism.”
Her biggest hope is that Black Lives Matter doesn’t get pigeonholed as a movement that only talks about police brutality.
“We are a movement that’s trying to do similar things to what the Panther Party was trying to do — create a new culture for us as black folks inside of this country and influencing the globe,” she says.
Solange Uwimana is an editorial fellow at the Village Voice.