The picture above shows Officer Daniel Pantaleo applying a rear naked choke to Staten Island man Eric Garner in the moments before Garner’s death. The NYPD forbids choke holds, because they can kill people when applied improperly. In the picture above, Pantaleo fails to get his elbow below Garner’s chin; instead of applying pressure to the carotid arteries, cutting off the blood supply to Garner’s brain, he presses against Garner’s throat, potentially damaging his trachea. But an autopsy found no injury to Garner’s windpipe. He died of cardiac arrest, which just happened to result from four officers using explicitly prohibited force to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. As you have certainly heard by now, none of those officers will be charged. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, who testified that he was merely trying to wrestle Garner to the ground. Today is Friday, and the police are above the law. Won’t you stagger beneath it with me?
As Amy Davidson points out at the New Yorker, the grand jury decision in this case is even more baffling than in the case of Michael Brown. In Ferguson, we were told that the jury declined to indict because of conflicting eyewitness accounts. In Staten Island, we have video of Eric Garner dying. We have video of Pantaleo violating NYPD regulations in a way that made him die. And for several minutes before the police take him down, we have video of Garner doing nothing that would justify the use of deadly force—not moving against any of the officers, not resisting, only complaining that what they are doing is unjust. Yet despite this video evidence, the grand jury concluded that there were no grounds to even suspect that a crime had been committed.
Maybe that’s because Pantaleo was allowed to testify in his own defense, an unusual move by the prosecutor that parallels the grand jury proceedings against Darren Wilson. Normally, the objects of grand jury inquests are not allowed to participate in the proceedings, but cops and prosecutors are friends. Afforded the opportunity to talk his own jury out of charging him by the person whose job it was to ensure that he was charged, Pantaleo claimed he wasn’t trying to choke Garner; he was only trying to take him to the ground. Watch this video and understand why that is an obvious lie.
Pantaleo first puts his arm around Garner’s neck at 1:22. At that point, he also has the single underhook beneath Garner’s right arm that Pantaleo says he was taught in the academy. That’s a takedown, albeit a dumb one: don’t try to take down a much heavier opponent by pulling him backwards onto you against the strong axis of his core. Pantaleo makes a lot of technical mistakes in his early engagement with Garner, but it’s not until 1:27 that it become obvious he is trying to apply the rear naked choke.
Garner is grounded by 1:27. After Pantaleo pulls him backwards against the store window, Garner turns and falls forward, with both knees and his left hand on the ground. At this point, with three other officers around him, Pantaleo could easily control Garner’s left wrist and flatten him along the sidewalk, completing his takedown and effectively ending the struggle. He does not. Instead of using his free hand to control his opponent’s base, he uses it to increase pressure on Garner’s neck, locking in his choke with the classic wrestling grip shown in the photo above.1
Pantaleo told the grand jury that he was trying to take Garner down, not choke him, but he begins the fight by putting his forearm across Garner’s neck, and he sacrifices a textbook opportunity to complete his takedown in order to secure his choke. Pantaleo is working for that rear naked for the entirety of his struggle with Garner. He sets out to submit his opponent using a specifically forbidden technique, and he winds up killing him.
But that’s not a crime—according to the jury, that’s not even reasonable suspicion of a crime. Even though we have video of Pantaleo violating NYPD protocol in a way that caused Garner’s death, and even though an expert witness with the most basic understanding of grappling could see from that video that Pantaleo’s account of his own behavior is untrue, the grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to try him.
Meanwhile, Ramsey Orta, the 22 year-old man who filmed Garner’s death, was indicted by a grand jury on a weapons charge two days later. His wife, Chrissie Ortiz, was arrested on an assault charge the following week. Orta claims that he was set up—cops said he put the handgun for which he was arrested in the waistband of a teenage girl moments before they arrived—and that the arresting officer told him, “karma’s a bitch.”
One hopes it is, because temporal law seems less concerned with good and evil than with white and black, cop and citizen. There is a class of American who can commit murder on video and get away with it. We pay them to keep us in line.