Imprisoned Reality: On the Filming of Eric Garner’s Death

A memorial for Eric Garner in Staten Island. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

It’s been a little more than two weeks since Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six from Staten Island, was killed by an NYPD-administered chokehold following a disagreement over the selling of untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies.” (Last week, the medical examiner who autopsied Garner ruled his death a homicide.) Civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement are always disturbing; what made Garner’s particularly distressing is a viral video documenting the incident, obtained by the Daily News.

At their most galvanizing, images have sparked movements and riots. But in 2014, when atrocities play on loop, how can any one video shock us? If we’ve become largely inured to the photographed event due to overexposure—what the critic Susan Sontag called our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events”—why do some videos retain the capacity to crystallize outrage, to snap us out of overstimulated torpor?

In the footage, shot by Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta, you can watch a verbal argument escalate rapidly into the physical confrontation that ended Garner’s life. You watch as officer Daniel Pantaleo approaches Garner from behind and wraps his arm around his neck; as the other officers on the scene bring Garner, a large man, down to the pavement; as Pantaleo pushes Garner’s face into the sidewalk; and as Garner repeatedly gasps, “I can’t breathe!”

What we’re watching, then, is a narrative, and a particularly tragic one whose ending we already know. That foreknowledge is like a lens that bends the time we spend watching the video, infusing it with a clarity of meaning; instead of watching something quotidian like a “normal” arrest or disagreement, we’re watching something we know is inexorably awful and final. That’s what endings do: they retrospectively give meaning to preceding time, narrativizing what had been merely a chain of events. Narratives need conclusions, after all. The tragedy comes in our knowing that the ending was unknown only once. “When I kissed my husband this morning, I never thought it would be for the last time,” Garner’s wife, Esaw, told the Daily News.

“As defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold,” police commissioner William Bratton said at a press conference the day after the incident. Chokeholds have been prohibited by NYPD policy since 1993. Mayor de Blasio has defended the coroner’s report, which found that “compression of [Garner’s] neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

But guess who disagrees? The police unions. In a press conference yesterday morning directed at “police haters,” Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch denied that officer Pantaleo used illegal force, and accused the medical examiner and the mayor of political gamesmanship. “It was not a chokehold,” Lynch, who was flanked on the dais by other police union members, said. “He was a big man who had to be brought to the ground to be placed under arrest by shorter police officers. Sometimes the use of force is necessary. But it’s never pretty to watch.”

He added: “I’ve never seen a document that was more political than that press release released by the [medical examiner’s] office. We spoke with experts who had never seen it released the way it was, without the facts behind it, without the Medical Examiner’s report and in parentheses, ‘Chokehold.’ That’s not a medical term.”

So, what’s next? The New York Times has a detailed rundown today of what lies ahead in the Garner case. The Staten Island district attorney’s office will now consider whether or not to prosecute Pantaleo or any of the other officers involved in the episode, a “decision fraught with legal and political complications.” On at least one previous occasion where the victim died “by compression of the chest and neck,” a chokehold was found to be unprovable, and the officer was never prosecuted.

The flip side to our sated overfamiliarity with images of death is that particular narratives remain ever-present, if we choose to pay attention to them. The term that the police unions find contentious—”chokehold”—is describing a thing that’s right there on tape. Chokehold is a loaded word, especially when the NYPD and unarmed black men are involved, and removing it from the discourse might drain some of the meaning many are reading into Garner’s death. This time, though, there’s footage. We can actually see and judge for ourselves, and so can the Staten Island DA. That’s worth a thousand words.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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