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In 2014, an NYPD officer used a chokehold on Staten Island resident Eric Garner—Garner died, and his last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry. While chokeholds have now been banned in several states, Garner’s case was never brought to trial, and his family says those responsible were never held accountable. A new film stages the court case that never was. Christopher Booker reports.
It's been six years since the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, who died from being held in a police chokehold after police confronted him for selling loose cigarettes on the street in Staten Island, New York in July 2014.
Since that incident, his final refrains of "I can't breathe," have become synonymous with national and global demonstrations calling for police reforms.
Some change has come. Many jurisdictions have changed rules involving the use of chokeholds.
Still, as with Eric Garner's death and others, many cases with police-involved deaths rarely bring an indictment or go to trial.
Garner's family says for them, justice was not served. But a film released this past spring, now showing on the cable channel, Reelz, chronicles the case that never was.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
It's been six years since Eric Garner, gasped, "I can't breathe."
Words captured via a cell phone video, words the world has come to know.
And words that prompted protests across the country. Activists, athletes and Garner's wife, Esaw Snipes-Garner and his family, asking that officer Daniel Pantaleo be held accountable in a court of law for Garner's death.
But that never happened.
A grand jury declined to indict the New York police officer who used a chokehold on Garner, the case seemingly ending before it even started.
But if an indictment had come—just what would a trial look like? And how would it proceed?
When the non-indictment came through, it just hit me like, I'm living in New York, everyone who would have testified in this trial if it happened is probably within 15 miles radius of me. And wouldn't it be interesting to put a trial on film, the trial that everybody thinks should have happened and won't happen?
In his film, American Trial: The Eric Garner Story, filmmaker, Roee Messinger, attempts to answer these questions.
The director recruited Esaw Snipes-Garner to play herself in this unscripted film as well as friends and witnesses who were there on the day of Eric Garner's death. The filmmaker also hired real lawyers to prosecute and defend the case – both sides calling expert witnesses throughout the trial.
The only actor in the film was the gentleman who portrayed officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was never charged in connection with Garner's death.
So what instructions did you give to the participants in the film as a director? What were you telling the participants to do?
So basically, I said to be yourselves.
You know, I had a conversation with Esaw when we, when, you know, before she went on the stand and she asked, what do you want me to do? How do you want me to act? And I said don't act just, just be you.
I would have loved to have done it in real life, like, you know, an actual trial. So, I was geared up for it. But it was hard. It was hard. I was so angry knowing that it was fake to you guys, but it's real to me.
So real, that Snipes-Garner says she found herself having difficulty keeping her cool as the Pantaleo defense team cross examined her.
He came home every night, so I didn't need to go to Bay Street to visit him.
I was ready to jump off, I mean, she literally came to me after everything was over and we went to the back and she was like, you know, this was fake right? I really apologize because the anger that boiled up in me, I really want to jump with that stand in front of her and punch her in her face.
While this has been a very personal and emotional time for Snipes-Garner, Messinger, who is from Israel, initially approached Eric Garner's death as a manslaughter case that would lead to the prosecution of officer Pantaleo.
And I was convinced and I couldn't imagine another possibility. There's a video of him choking another man.
The reason why I mentioned this and the fact that I'm a foreigner is because I think that this is really one of those examples of things that happen in the United States that just don't happen in other countries, or at least not in the same kind of frequency.
Compared to much of the developed world, Messinger is right. More people are killed by the police in the U.S. than in any other wealthy nation.
And this past spring, just as the film was being released, came the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, offering tragic support for Messinger's argument.
What do you think this film offers to the current conversation, particularly thinking just this past summer we saw a very similar incident with George Floyd?
Right. So, I think that's the million dollar question, right?
In every important juncture of the film, people always tell me, oh, what a timely film because there had just been another Black man who was killed by the police a week ago, two weeks ago or that same month. Because it's really all just about one thing and that's just systemic racism. Right.
There was no trial in the Eric Garner case and that's what the film is about. How is it possible that this trial you're seeing in front of you is fake? And the reason is because it was a Black man who was killed by a white police officer.
I spoke with Breonna Taylor's mom and, you know, I, you know, she wanted to know what should she expect? And I told her, just don't give up, you know? And just keep fighting.
And Snipes-Garner also spoke with George Floyd's brother.
I just told him, you know, that I feel his pain. I felt his pain for six years. I can't imagine what a person would be thinking them last few minutes of their life, knowing that the breath is being drained from their bodies. But, that, he mattered. And the world is showing him that he mattered.
Since the death of Eric Garner, officer Pantaleo was fired from his job. The state of New York has also passed a law banning police chokeholds. But for all these measures and the continuing discussion surrounding Garner's death, Snipes feels there's something missing.
It's now been six years since Eric's death. What do you think people don't understand about what it means for you?
They don't understand that he was a father, he was a husband, he was a grandfather, he was a son, an uncle, a cousin. He was a pillar of the community, he was somebody that helped people that were less fortunate. So what, he sold a loose cigarette. So what? It's not a death sentence.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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