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Eric Garner, 10 Years Later

A cell phone video of Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD police, seen by millions, helped ignite calls for sweeping changes in policing. Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, is trying to sustain the national momentum for police reform.

Gwen Carr speaks to protesters in New York a day after the Department of Justice announced no federal charges would be filed in the death of her son, Eric Garner, (Sam van Pykeren)

Ten years ago on July 17, Eric Garner struggled to avoid arrest for the charge of selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes near the Staten Island ferry terminal. NYPD plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo then placed the 43-year-old in a chokehold that killed him.

Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted in 2014.

In early December of that year, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, igniting widespread protests against the NYPD and then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

After a protracted federal investigation also produced no indictment, the City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board brought charges against Pantaleo that resulted in his firing by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill in August 2019. This added fuel to the cops’ hostility to de Blasio but did not diminish activists’ ire against the former mayor — given that it took five years to simply get Pantaleo off the force. 

But as anyone who watched Ramsey Orta’s viral cell-phone video of the fatal incident can attest, Pantaleo was not the only officer involved in Garner’s death. 

Although Garner’s mother Gwen Carr and the grassroots organization the Justice Committee have consistently pushed for accountability for the other officers involved, no one other than Pantaleo has faced meaningful disciplinary action. Despite clear negligence at the murder scene and blatant lies in their initial reports, many of the Garner cops have since been promoted. 

The Indypendent calculates that since 2014, these same six officers have received over $7.5 million in salaries (plus overtime) from the city, an expenditure that increases substantially when including pensions and health care. 

Let’s review the Garner cops’ handiwork. 

A few months before the Garner killing, NYPD Chief of Department Phil Banks called attention to untaxed cigarette sales on Bay Street, near the ferry terminal. Prior to the mid-July incident, Banks ordered a crackdown. (Banks, later implicated in an untaxed liquor racket, is now the most powerful deputy mayor in the Adams administration.) 

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Starting in March 2014, Lt. Christopher Bannon of the 120th Precinct monitored the Bay Street site for the sale of loosies. Over the next two months cops arrested Garner twice for the low-level infraction. 

On July 17, Lt. Bannon and Sergeant Dhanan Saminath sent officers Pantaleo and Justin D’Amico to 200 Bay St. Both Pantaleo and D’Amico knew Garner from previous encounters. D’Amico told CCRB investigators that he understood Lt. Bannon’s original directions to mean “make an arrest if he observed illegal activity.” 

The two officers dubiously explained to the CCRB that on the ride over to Bay Street, “they did not speak to each other about the assignment.” Instead, “the only conversation that they had was about what was on the radio.” The duo parked over 300 feet from 200 Bay Street. From that distance, D’Amico maintained that he saw Garner make a loosie transaction — whereas Pantaleo said that a car blocked his view. 

When confronted by the officers, Garner made it clear that he was sick of being harassed, ominously stating “I’m tired of it. This stops today.” 

After calling in back-up, Pantaleo initiates the deadly encounter, choking Garner for about 10 seconds. As Garner asserts “I can’t breathe” 11 times, Pantaleo presses Garner’s head into the sidewalk for another few seconds. Even though D’Amico and three uniformed cops now had Garner in handcuffs, Pantaleo claimed that the face press was necessary in order to keep Garner “from biting.” 

As Garner lay limp, none of the officers did anything to help him, with D’Amico later explaining that he thought the victim was “playing possum.” 

Both Pantaleo and D’Amico later said that they opted not to use pepper spray because they did not want to douse each other. D’Amico has also claimed that he never heard Garner say “I can’t breathe.”

At the scene, Pantaleo repeatedly told Sgt. Saminath that he saw Garner selling a loosie and that instead of a chokehold, he pulled the big man down by his shirt. The lying had only just begun. 

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Sgt. Saminath texted Lt. Bannon that “Danny [and] Justin went to collar Garner [and] he resisted. While they were trying to gain control of him he went into cardiac arrest…Might be doa.” 

“They observed him selling [a loosie],” Saminath’s text further stated, but after Garner refused to comply, “Danny then tried to grab him and they both fell down.” 

“Not a big deal,” Lt. Bannon responded to Saminath’s distorted account, “we were effecting a lawf[ul] arrest.” According to Hell Gate’s Nick Pinto, Bannon’s callous statement caused “an uproar” when it surfaced in the 2019 departmental trial. On the stand, Bannon claimed that he was simply trying to put his officers’ “mind[s] at ease,” given that they had experienced a “bad situation.” 

After leaving the crime scene, D’Amico returned to the precinct and filed false paperwork. In addition to claiming that there had been no use of force, his arrest report then charged Garner with felony cigarette sales, meaning he had 10,000 or more. At the 2021 judicial inquiry into Garner’s death, D’Amico said this was an honest mistake. “Due to the circumstances, I wasn’t thinking clearly,” he stated. 

Soon after Ramsey Orta’s cellphone video went viral, PIX 11 reported that the footage contradicted a police report that quoted both Sgt. Saminath and Sgt. Kizzy Adonis expressing doubts regarding the severity of Garner’s condition. Adonis, a Black woman, was charged by the NYPD with failure to supervise at the scene, eventually losing 20 vacation days. Saminath was not charged. Officers Mark Ramos and Craig Furlani, who piled on top of Garner and aided in handcuffing him, faced no penalties. 

As of June 2024, Christopher Bannon is Lt. Commander Detective of the NYPD’s Central Robbery Division, a high-level unit that operates out of 1 Police Plaza. Adonis and Saminath remain sergeants with desk jobs. In the fall of 2022, D’Amico was promoted to detective at the 122nd Precinct on Staten Island’s South Shore. 

In 2023, Bannon added $93k in overtime to his base pay of $150k. Adonis boosted her $118k salary with $53k, while Saminath bumped up his same salary with an extra $90k. D’Amico added nearly $50k to his $104k salary. Ramos and Furlani both retired a few years ago at the 20-year mark. 

For the Garner cops, the case really wasn’t such a big deal, after all. 

Meanwhile, Gwen Carr, a retired MTA train operator, continues to fight police brutality. In 2020 she pushed the state legislature to pass the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, outlawing the dangerous tactic. Two years ago, she launched the E.R.I.C. Initiative, a nonprofit that helps families affected by police violence. 

Carr is also trying to sustain the national momentum for police reform, which has waned since the 2020 George Floyd protests. This past spring at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Carr along with relatives of Floyd and Tyre Nichols, denounced the lack of commitment by elected leaders. 

“It’s too late for our children,” said Carr. “But we want to save other children.”

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