'I can't breathe': New York remembers Eric Garner, another black man killed by police

Garner’s 2014 death still drives calls for even-handed policing in a city with rising crime rates

George Floyd was not the only unarmed black American man left frantically gasping for breath during a run-in with a white lawman.

Before Floyd lost consciousness on a Minneapolis street with a policeman's knee pinned to his throat last year, Eric Garner met a similarly breathless end in New York in 2014.

Saturday marks the seventh anniversary of Garner being placed in a chokehold by an officer on Staten Island as he was being arrested for selling untaxed, individual cigarettes -- known locally as "loosies" -- on the street.

Widely shared mobile phone footage of Floyd’s death last year sparked a national wave of protests over racially fuelled police violence. Seven years ago, it was viral videos of Garner wheezing “I can’t breathe” that drew crowds to Black Lives Matter rallies.

For New Yorkers, Garner symbolises the police's excessive use of force against unarmed black men in a city of 8.4 million that is again grappling with racial justice issues, this time amid a surge in violent crime.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee honoured the two men when speaking this month at the Cannes Film Festival, where he served as its first black jury president.

“When you see brother Eric Garner, when you see king George Floyd murdered, lynched,” said Lee, “you would think and hope that … black people would stop being hunted down like animals.”

Garner died after being placed in a fatal chokehold in the city’s Tompkinsville neighbourhood, where locals today say relations with police have only marginally improved.

Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who wrestled Garner to the ground using a prohibited chokehold, was never prosecuted. He was eventually fired by the New York Police Department in 2019.

The following year, state politicians passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which opened the door to prosecutions of cops who kill using chokeholds and other restraint techniques. The charge carries a 15-year jail term.

The debate over policing continues in the run-up to an election in November over who will lead the city, including a mayoral race pitting Democrat Eric Adams against Curtis Sliwa, a Republican.

Both candidates are crime fighters — Mr Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, is a former police captain, and Mr Sliwa in 1979 founded the Guardian Angels group of vigilantes who patrolled streets and subways in their trademark red berets.

Similar to the late 1970s, New Yorkers nowadays rank law and order as a priority amid double-digit rises in shootings and hate crimes. The would-be mayors both eschew leftist plans to cut police funding, saying they can reform policing while keeping the streets safe.

Mr Sliwa, who is distancing himself from ex-president Donald Trump’s version of the Republican Party in his long-shot mayoral run, says Garner’s case is relevant today.

“Officer Pantaleo did choke him out,” Mr Sliwa told Bloomberg this month. “It was a hold that should not be legal.”

Garner’s legacy is more apparent in another race, in which Alvin Bragg, a former deputy to New York's attorney general, is expected to win an election in autumn to become Manhattan’s first black district attorney.

The 47-year-old civil rights lawyer has campaigned more heavily for police reforms than his mayoral counterparts. He is also representing Garner’s mother in a judicial inquiry into the chokehold fatality.

Mr Bragg, a Democrat, told an upper Manhattan crowd last month that big questions remain over Garner’s death and he assured them he was “still fighting for transparency”.

The Garner family seeks the release of medical records, the names of all officers at the scene and for disciplinary action against an officer who falsely filed paperwork saying force was not used on Garner.

“That’s the kind of fight I’m going to continue and take to the Manhattan [district attorney's] office,” said Mr Bragg.

Fighting in Garner’s corner has earned Mr Bragg plaudits as a racial justice trailblazer, but he may gain attention for other reasons. If he wins in November, he would take charge of a much bigger case: the tax-dodge prosecutions aimed at Mr Trump’s property empire.

Updated: July 16, 2021, 7:37 PM