The labored breathing of black America has grown more intense since the state-sanctioned choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner last summer on Staten Island, N.Y. You can feel it—chests seizing, eyes watering, in-out, in-out—sharp pain slicing through the hot desperation of a nation struggling not to collapse onto itself.
Gil Scott-Heron was right and he was wrong. The revolution has been both live and televised with “pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay.” Some people have tuned out, while others have turned up. It is an uprising engorged with the blood of our dead and the righteousness of our rage, causing city after city to catch a fire when it explodes.
Though the #BlackLivesMatters movement recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, it moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness during the summer of death that began with Garner’s killing on July 17, 2014.
The temperature that day was a muggy 84 degrees. Garner, 6 foot 3, 350 pounds, had reportedly just broken up a fight and was posted up on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street when Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo walked over and accused him of selling loose cigarettes—the hood calls them “loosies.”
Sensing danger, then-22-year-old Ramsey Orta began recording the exchange between “Biggie”—the nickname by which he called the “good dude” he’d known from “around the way” for about four years—and Pantaleo. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Orta would say of Garner in a later interview.
Orta’s shaky video captured multiple officers surrounding the man family and friends called a “gentle giant,” and Garner’s last words, both powerful and chilling, are carved into the hearts and minds of countless people:
Get away … for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. … Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing …
Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me … I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.
Please, please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me … I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Eric Garner lost his life trying to be free. He just wanted to be free.
On Monday, the city of New York announced that a $5.9 million settlement had been reached with his family, but his mother made it clear that a payoff is not justice.
“Don’t congratulate us,” said Gwen Carr, speaking to supporters and media at the offices of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “This is not a victory.”
As Rachel M. Cohen wrote for the American Prospect, “The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines and tickets. … Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill.”
This, coming from a city that builds it budget by disproportionately targeting black and Latino citizens via “broken windows” and zero-tolerance policing, the same tactics that emboldened Pantaleo to approach Garner who was standing on the corner, “just minding [his] business, officer.”
This is not a victory. And the more things change in black America, the more they stay the same.
Jonathan Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Brandon Tate-Brown, Aura Rosser, Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley—the list goes on and on—have all fallen victim to police brutality in the year since Garner’s death. Just this week, two black women, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman and 28-year-old Sandra Bland, were found hanged in jail cells under suspicious circumstances.
Each death becomes a wave that pushes us closer to the shores of resistance, refusing to be washed away by apathy and complacency.
“Eric Garner did not die in vain,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night during a memorial service at Mount Sinai United Christian Church on Staten Island. “His life mattered. It mattered to these good people of his family, it mattered to his community, and it came to matter deeply to his city and his nation.”
As beautiful as that sounds, Eric Garner shouldn’t have died at all. And one year after his death, his killer, who was never charged, is reportedly ready to get back to work—while Garner’s family is still struggling to get back to living.
Saturday morning, almost a year to the day that Garner was killed, Jonathan Sanders will be buried. The Stonewall, Miss., man was unarmed when he was allegedly choked to death by white Police Officer Kevin Harrington, and according to relatives, the 39-year-old father gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
It is the tragic bookend to a year filled with pain, rage and reaffirming to one another that black lives do matter—we matter—even when this country tells us on a daily basis that we do not.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” —Assata Shakur