Activists, revolutionaries and family members gathered at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on July 17 to march in memory of Eric Garner, the Black man choked to death five years ago by New York Police Department cop Daniel Pantaleo. The action culminated with a visit to Pantaleo’s home in the Oakwood Heights neighborhood—the first time a protest has taken place there.
Eric Garner’s final words—“I can’t breathe” repeated 11 times—resonated around the world as a symbol of how racist oppression kills Black people in the U.S. His death and the non-indictment of Pantaleo in December 2017 were major forces behind the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ramsey Orta, a young Puerto Rican man and friend of Eric Garner who videoed the killing, has been persecuted by the NYPD, and is the only person at the scene who has been sent to jail. (To find out how to help Ramsey, who is resisting severe harassment and intimidation while incarcerated, go to ramseyorta.org.)
Those marching were enraged but entirely unsurprised by the July 16 Department of Justice announcement that federal civil rights charges would not be filed against Pantaleo. It’s widely known that today’s police are the descendants of pre-Civil War slave patrols and night watches, and that they fulfill the same function: to detain, kill and oppress Black, Brown and Indigenous people, migrants and workers. Pantaleo was not indicted for any crime because he was doing exactly what he was hired to do when he killed Eric Garner.
‘Struggle for justice’
The march began following a route set by Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter, who marched regularly in Staten Island following her father’s murder and took a leading role in the struggle against police brutality. Tragically, Erica died in late December 2017 from a heart attack shortly after giving birth—yet another death linked to racism. The maternal death rate for Black women in the U.S. is more than three times that of white women (cdc.org)
The struggle for justice for her father weighed heavily on Erica. Shortly before her death, she said, “I’m struggling right now with the stress of everything, because the system, it beats you down.” (The Guardian, Dec. 30, 2017) The July 17 action took up her name as well as her father’s and was organized by The Legacy Eric Garner Left Behind, NYC Shut It Down, People’s Power Assemblies NYC and Why Accountability.
The march, led by Jewel Miller, mother of Eric’s youngest child, stopped at the 122nd Police Precinct before rallying at the place where Eric Garner was killed. Though the rally appeared to be wrapping up, in fact over 100 people quietly boarded the Staten Island Railway and traveled to the Oakwood Heights neighborhood to Pantaleo’s home.
Undeterred by increasingly heavy rain, the demonstrators faced down a wall of police. Accompanied by thunder, lightning and beating rain, the righteous anger of the oppressed poured forth. Protesters chanted, “He need to be scared everywhere that he go, we will find you Pantaleo,” “Pantaleo got away with murder, vengeance for Eric Garner” and “We’ll be back!”
Before departing, a protester shouted at the cops: “We won’t stay out here long. This is a message for y’all. The same way you can find us, we can find you!”
As protesters returned to the train, an atmosphere of joy and celebration could be found amidst the grief and anger. In their revolutionary, militant unity, those assembled found extraordinary strength and exposed the NYPD as paper tigers—to be crumpled and swept into the dustbin of history.