Update: The NYPD announced on Monday that officer Daniel Pantaleo had been fired.
NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said in a press conference that, "Pantaleo’s use of a prohibited chokehold was reckless and constituted a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York City police officer.
I agree with the Deputy Commissioner of Trials legal findings and recommendations and it is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer serve as a New York City police officer."
This story was originally published at 5:30 p.m. on August 1, 2019.
Five years after Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man from New York City, said the words "I can't breathe" and died after being put in what police investigators deemed an illegal chokehold during an arrest in Staten Island, his youngest daughter, Emerald Snipes-Garner, hasn’t stopped fighting for justice.
During Wednesday night's presidential primary debate, protestors chanted "Fire Pantaleo" during the opening statements, referring to Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who administered the deadly chokehold on Garner. He again became a topic of conversation when candidate Julián Castro criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for sparing the officer from federal civil rights charges, a decision that was announced on July 16, just one day before the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death. The decision on whether to fire Pantaleo could be made as early as Friday.
Snipes-Garner echoed the protestors' chants when the DOJ delivered the news. Distraught, the 26-year-old activist stormed out of the Manhattan federal courthouse and delivered an impromptu speech. "Fire Pantaleo now," she is heard yelling to onlookers and media in a video captured outside the courthouse that morning. "Nobody wants to hold nobody accountable. You want us to be calm, you want to send condolences? Fuck your condolences." As of now, Pantaleo is still employed by the New York Police Department and has even received pay increases. Snipes-Garner has taken matters into her own hands, launching a Change.org petition demanding that Pantaleo be fired.
Since Eric Garner's death, the Garner family was struck by tragedy again when Erica Garner, Emerald’s older sister, died at age 27 at the end of 2017 after a heart attack — and again last Friday, when Eric’s stepfather Ben Carr died of a heart attack at a family wedding. In addition to mourning her family members, Snipes-Garner has been dealing with the lengthy, bureaucratic legal processes the family has experienced in their pursuit for justice. (The DOJ's decision on Pantaleo came just one day before the statute of limitations ran out.)
We spoke with Snipes-Garner to get some insight into what comes next in her family’s fight for justice, what accountability looks like, and, most importantly, what the rest of us can do to support the movement for Black lives.
How did you feel in that moment when you found out the DOJ would not be filing federal charges against Daniel Pantaleo?
"The video [of my reaction] kind of went viral, and that’s definitely how I’m feeling, and I will continue to feel that way until [Pantaleo] is fired. I want to be able to let the people know that I’m very emotional, I’m very angry. It’s going to be a longer fight to even try to get the case opened again, trying to find out what the legal processes are for those proceedings, having public hearings, and stuff like that.
"I’m tired of just sitting back and waiting for things to get done. I waited five years for the DOJ to tell us what they could’ve told us five years ago. They could’ve told us the same day. We didn’t need five different people to look at the paperwork to say that they weren’t going to indict the officer."
What needs to be done at this point for justice to be served? Besides Pantaleo, who needs to be held accountable for what happened to your father?
"Accountability is everything. Everyone keeps passing the buck to someone else — like 'it’s not me, it’s the DOJ,' or 'it’s not me, it’s the grand jury,' or 'it’s not me, it’s the CCRB [NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board]' — but who is it really? Who do we talk to that has the power to do something? They’re saying it’s [NYPD Commissioner] James O’Neill, but O’Neill can’t make the decision until the judge makes the decision. So, is it the judge who I need to be asking for answers from? At this point, who’s really at fault? We went to the Obama administration, now the Trump administration, and nothing’s being done.
"This is one of those situations where everybody’s in the room, and something gets broken, and everybody’s like, 'it’s not me.' We’re playing Where’s Waldo? with the person who’s supposed to be accountable, when we know who murdered my father. We know who was there, we saw the video, we have their names. They were sitting on the stands at CCRB, there was witness testimony, there was an investigation, there’s text messages, there’s paperwork. I’m not understanding what type of investigation is being done."
It must have been especially hard to have such a personal case tied up in bureaucracy for so long, only to be disappointed by the result.
"For many people, this is just a phase. As [the news of] Eric Garner came in, it died out, and the cameras went away. When Erica passed away, it died out, and everything went away. Now the hype is up, and it’s going to go away again. I’m making sure that no one will forget. You will not forget. You will know what Pantaleo looks like. So when he walks the street, you know that you’re walking next to a murderer."
One of the things that Black Lives Matter activists want to see happen is to see real repercussions for police officers who kill civilians. Besides the firing of the officers involved, is there anything else that you’d like to see change structurally to halt the killing of unarmed Black civilians?
"Right now, we’ll absolutely push for the Eric Garner Law, which will ban the chokehold in any form. They’re using the terms 'seatbelt maneuver,' 'seatbelt technique,' 'arm-hold,' or anything but chokehold. Call it a chokehold. They’re using the gray areas. They’re using the little window of opportunity to say it wasn’t a chokehold, and it was absolutely a chokehold. [The law] will bring forth the banning of anything that restricts the neck and breathing of an unarmed civilian."
How, if at all, can the city repair what has been broken or lost due to your father’s preventable death?
"I mean, they can stop killing us. That’s how we can stop the cycle. Police brutality is becoming a norm, and I feel like the ones who commit the heinous crimes show no remorse. It’s just like, 'Oh well, I did it, so what?' What’s going to happen when it’s your son, when it’s your daughter, when it’s your relative? What are you going to do then? You’re just going to ignore the fact that your son or your daughter could be walking down the street, and someone could come kill them, on camera, and no one is held accountable? People don’t put themselves in our shoes. That was my father. Nobody understands. Everybody is disconnected from the emotional part. It’s just like, 'Oh, I just want to talk about it,' but no, let’s not talk about it, let’s do something about it. Don’t just give me condolences, change things."
How would you like to see other people getting involved?
"Sign the petition on Change.org. Make a post on your social media — social media is a very powerful tool. Put 'I can’t breathe' on your profile picture, so everybody can see it. This needs to become more visible. This needs to become more present.
"People will be like, 'I feel like I can’t help,' but you can help. If you can’t make a protest, talk about the protest: 'Everybody go join the protest. I can’t be there, but I support you,' or 'I can’t come out physically, but I can put it on my social media.' Everything is just, 'I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.' I don’t want to hear 'I can’t,' I want to hear 'I’m going to.'"