It has been five years since a viral video showed Eric Garner‘s last moments, with the final words he would speak still haunting our memories: “I can’t breathe.” Those words created a movement to bring justice to the Garner family as well as other victims of police brutality. Many protests later, it was not until August 18 that Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer responsible for Garner’s death, finally lost his job.
Pantaleo’s long-delayed firing also came amid the controversial deal between Jay-Z and the NFL in light of Colin Kaepernick‘s continued blackballing by NFL executives after he tried to call attention to police brutality and deadly force two years after Garner’s death. As Garner’s family filed a petition to get answers from city leaders, a begrudging chorus of “what took so long?” grew louder while colliding with the harsh truth that any semblance of justice has been elusive for years.
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” Houston civil rights attorney U.A. Lewis flat-out told NewsOne in a recent phone conversation about Pantaleo’s firing. Still, she said, terminating his job was obviously the right call.
“This is a problem that we face dealing with officers that have been known to use excessive deadly force and keeping their jobs after the fact,” said Lewis, who has represented victims of police brutality, including Clarence Evans, who was mistaken for another man by Houston police in his own driveway in June. She was also a victim of Houston police when she was jailed on false charges in 2016 before successfully suing the city. “It’s very difficult to get them terminated,” she lamented.
Garner died on a New York City street after being put into an illegal chokehold by Pantaleo in July 2014 following officers confronting him for allegedly selling untaxed, loose cigarettes. A grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo months later. Years later, the Department of Justice decided against bringing any federal charges against Pantaleo, leaving the firing as the only true punishment for killing an unarmed Black man. In a recent disciplinary proceeding, a judge recommended that Pantaleo be fired after she ruled that his use of the chokehold, which was banned by the NYPD, was reckless.
Lewis warned that police departments’ failing to act swiftly creates what she referred to as “gypsy cops” who, like Pantaleo, remain eligible for employment in law enforcement after using excessive and deadly force that critics call police brutality at best and murder at worst.
“They call them ‘gypsy cops’ where they go from agency to agency and it’s because there’s no real discipline and the termination took so long it’s almost diluted to nothing,” Lewis said of officers like Betty Shelby, who was acquitted for killing the unarmed Black man she shot with his hands up while he was walking away from her in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2016. Last year, Shelby began her second career: teaching police officers how to survive those types of situations.
Xavier Donaldson, a New York criminal defense attorney who has represented clients such as Keith Walton, the high-ranking NYPD officer that was cleared of sexual abuse charges in October, was also quick to describe Pantaleo’s firing as anything but justice.
“I don’t know that there’s anything that can bring justice to the Garner family, but I think this was a step in the right direction,” Donaldson told NewsOne last week. “It’s important for that family to know that at least part of the process is saying that that officer did something to her child, someone’s father, someone’s sibling.”
Though many praised NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill’s decision to finally fire Pantaleo, little attention was brought to his comments about Garner during his Monday press conference. During his speech, O’Neill seemed to blame Garner for his own death as he said, “it is unlikely that Mr. Garner thought he was in such poor health that a brief struggle with police would have caused his death. He should have decided against resisting arrest, but a man with a family lost his life, and that is an irreversible tragedy.” O’Neill went on to seemingly praise Pantaleo as “hardworking” and called it a “tragedy” that the 13-year veteran lost his career.
Noting that O’Neill probably made those comments to try to somewhat show support for the Garner family and his police officers, Donaldson questioned police’s expectation of nonresistance.
“To put someone in a chokehold and say if you don’t resist you won’t die, it’s ludicrous,” he said. “No place else in humanity is that acceptable that you would ask a person to accept being beat up. The only people that ever say it’s a good idea are police officers.”
Both Lewis and Donaldson linked Pantaleo’s firing to the controversial partnership Jay-Z forged with the NFL under the guise of the larger social justice conversation that apparently caused free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick to be exiled by the league.
“[Jay-Z] has not sacrificed for it,” Lewis said about bringing attention to police brutality against Black people, in particular. “Colin Kaepernick has actually sacrificed for it,” she added in a reference to the football player standing up for a cause that left him unemployable in his chosen profession.
Lewis cited Jay-Z’s flippant dismissal of Kaepernick’s silent protest of kneeling during the national anthem.
“And we have someone like Jay-Z that’s just a contributor who sacrificed nothing say ‘it’s over now, it’s time to flip the page’ — I don’t think he has put in enough sweat equity to make that call,” Lewis added.
Donaldson, however, was cautiously optimistic about the rapper’s involvement with an organization that has been labeled as being part of the problem.
“I think the media is being a little bit unfair to him because they’re solely jumping on him partnering up with the NFL for the halftime show,” Donaldson said. “If he’s going to use that position to take NFL money, partnerships, reputation and resources to address issues in the community then I can’t knock that. I tell people all the time you have to be at the table.”
Considering the growing list of deaths and brutality against Black people by police that seems to have no end in sight, Donaldson said seeing progress on the social justice front, even if it was made in baby steps, was personal to him.
“I’ve been stopped by police officers since I was 10,” Donaldson reflected. “So we have been saying this has been a problem for years other people have not recognized that that’s a problem. Now I think some other people are recognizing that’s a problem, but the question is whether enough people recognize that there’s a problem. [This is] going to keep happening until something larger causes a change.”