Five years after Eric Garner’s death, no charges will be filed
Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer, wears a shirt displaying a photo of him. | Mary Altaffer / AP

The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday, July 16, that it will not pursue federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who placed Eric Garner in the chokehold that killed him. The decision brings to a close the criminal portion of the case and came just a day prior to the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death.

On July 17, 2014, 43-year-old Garner reportedly broke up a fight on a busy street in the Staten Island, N.Y., neighborhood of Tompkinsville. When the NYPD arrived on the scene, police officers accused Garner of illegally selling individual cigarettes (sometimes referred to as ‘loosies’). The accusations sparked a response from Garner, who stated, “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.”

The incident was recorded by a passerby, Ramsey Orta. The recording showcased the aggressive manner in which cops approached the unarmed Garner. One white officer, Pantaleo, placed Garner in a chokehold and tackled him to the ground, causing him to gasp as he repeatedly called out for help. Many activists have echoed Garnered final words, “I can’t breathe,” as a symbol of the oppression and systemic injustices they’ve faced.

Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, spoke at a press conference Tuesday morning in response to the decision, saying, “We’re here with heavy hearts because the DOJ as failed us.” Despite the fact that the city medical examiner listed Garner’s official cause of death as “compression of neck (a direct result of the chokehold), and compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” the NYPD has yet to accept responsibility for the incident.

According to reports, the DOJ was tasked with determining whether Pantaleo’s actions purposefully violated federal civil rights law. The chokehold maneuver used by Pantaleo is officially banned by the NYPD, but officials did not feel convinced that there was enough evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” the officer acted willfully.

Garner’s mother expressed devastation in the face of the decision. “Five years ago, my son said ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times, and today we can’t breathe because they have let us down.” Carr and other members of the Garner family have been at the forefront of the movement to advocate for police accountability measures. Eric Garner’s own daughter, Erica Garner, became a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement before she passed away in 2017 due to asthma-related complications.

Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became one of the early rallying cries of the movement against police violence. Here, demonstrators march in Washington, Dec. 13, 2014, during the Justice for All march. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

The lasting legacy of Garner’s death was particularly critical to the social context of the time. Just one month before Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Garner was targeted and harassed by the NYPD. His pleas for help were viewed all over the internet, leaving no speculation as to how the incident unfolded. When the world witnessed Garner’s final moments, they were reminded that little had changed since the 1991 police beating of an unarmed Black man, Rodney King, which precipitated the 1992 L.A. riots.

Similar to the aftermath of the King verdict acquitted the officers involved, the public reacted with warranted outrage. For many, Garner’s death was a culmination of the racism that many Black Americans continue to experience in their day-to-day lives. It is no coincidence that a month after Garner’s death Ferguson erupted in civil unrest; his demise served as one of the catalysts for a modern civil rights movement.

The years that followed have forced the public to have uncomfortable conversations about the reoccurring violence that Black and brown communities face at the hands of police. The murders of Eric Garner, Micheal Brown, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and others, brought to light the dehumanization Black individuals face, particularly at the hands of law enforcement. Public officials have been forced to address “police reform” measures and question whether it is truly possible to “fix” a system so heavily embedded with bigotry.

It took five years for the DOJ to reinforce what so many Black communities already knew: Those in power continue to exist above the law. Activists have argued that the very foundation of policing and prison systems are inherently racist and enable the continuous cycles of incarceration that keep Black people locked up—and killer cops like Pantaleo free.

The true tragedy lies not only in Garner’s death but the ripple effect of backlash to those near him that dared challenge the misconduct of the New York Police Department. Garner’s daughter, Erica, is now deceased, his mother is childless, and the man who recorded the incident has been continuously profiled and harassed by the police.

Despite the mass protests, die-ins, and pleas for justice, our criminal justice system remains woefully flawed. Though it is said that time heals all wounds, the wounds of Garner’s death remain fresh for so many who are now forced to reconcile with the fact that nobody will be held responsible for his murder.

Garner’s mother, however, has vowed to continue fighting for justice. “You can push back, but we’re pushing forward because this is not the end.”


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.