What the Eric Garner Case Says About Staten Island Politics

Charles D. Ellison
Outside the beauty salon on Dec. 3, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York City, where Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014, by a police officer who put him in a choke hold
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

You can learn a lot about Staten Island if you catch Method Man flowing on a classic Wu Tang album.

Another way to capture the New York City borough’s vibe is by watching Eric Garner get choked to death by an overzealous Gotham cop and then watching a grand jury in Richmond County—the jurisdiction that overlaps with the borough—let the cop go free.


But you don’t fully understand Staten Island until you dig into its politics. And if you do, what you find is an ugly mix of the following: a heavily white electorate; a Republican congressman who just got re-elected, even though he’s been indicted on tax-fraud charges; and the elected Republican county prosecutor who’s said to be gunning for Congress himself.

And understanding the politics of where Garner died informs us about the circumstances surrounding his death as much as does watching the grisly video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo killing him. Greater political or demographic context brings us closer to the “Dear Watson” moment while we angrily mull the grand jury’s decision not to indict.


At 473,000 residents, the borough is not only 66 percent white; it’s also home to the only Republican congressional district in New York City. And it’s represented by none other than infamous Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, a once-rising-star, new-school, knuckle-up Republican who was indicted on federal fraud charges and re-elected in the same year. This is the former FBI agent, mind you, who also muscled a NY1 reporter for asking him questions about said fraud charges. 

It’s a place where just over 10 percent of the population is black. Hence, there should be little surprise when a grand jury with a racial makeup of 14 whites and five blacks arrives at a decision not to indict an officer who chokes an unarmed man to death in the course of an “arrest” for selling “loosie” cigarettes.


Police also wield enormous political and professional clout on Staten Island. Watch them in action when the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association had a fit after reports surfaced that the New York City Police Department’s Staten Island commander had a headlight fixed on Garner’s mother’s car so that she could avoid a traffic ticket.

New York City police unions also up-front bullied other labor unions when they mass-marched against the choke hold tragedy. Watch closely in the ensuing months as police unions nudge local politicians such as Mayor Bill de Blasio, who relied on them for an endorsement in his 2013 first-term win and will need them again when he runs for re-election in 2018. The black vote might be strong as a Jedi force in New York City writ large, but in a heavily white, Republican borough like Staten Island, law-enforcement professionals run things.


That also means they’re not above putting quiet pressure on folks like Daniel Donovan Jr., the Richmond County prosecutor who pretty much litigated from the same playbook as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch—handing responsibility for finding probable cause to grand jurors instead of indicting on charges that he could have brought on his own.

Donovan also has eyes on Grimm’s congressional seat, should the young-gun House member’s fraud indictment turn into a conviction. That means Donovan has to play nice with local cops if he wants their endorsement in a possible 2015 special election. And why wouldn’t they play nice together? Police work extremely closely with local district attorneys because that’s how the system works. The problem is what happens when the script is occasionally flipped and someone’s work buddy has to prosecute his pal at the courtroom watercooler.


Two of New York City’s black congressmen, Democratic Reps. Gregory Meeks and Hakeem Jeffries, tried warning us about this scenario several months ago.

But it may not be quite as shady if we start understanding and mastering the politics. Donovan, like many elected prosecutors, views his position as a stepping-stone to higher office. Since politics play out differently in a place like New York City than in a suburban city like Ferguson, Mo., it will be interesting to see how far that goes.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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