By Lucas Manfield and Olivia Eubanks
The 51st anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination took a painful turn for some New Yorkers on Thursday as surprise news arrived that an NYPD surgeon would testify on behalf of the officer accused of using excessive force in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
Garner’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—became a rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement across the country. He died following a takedown by police on July 17, 2014 that was videotaped by a passerby and went viral. Witnesses said that the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, had used a chokehold, a prohibited maneuver in the NYPD. A Staten Island Grand Jury declined to indict him, but Pantaleo faces NYPD disciplinary proceedings on May 13, with his job at stake.
It was in a pretrial hearing in that case that the news came that Eli Kleinman, the NYPD’s Chief Surgeon since 2003, had determined that Pantaleo did not use a chokehold, according to the officer’s lawyer, Stu London. The Daily News reported that Kleinman, a hematologist, determined that Garner had no injuries associated with a chokehold and that Garner’s health was a factor in his death. He was obese and had asthma.
The chokehold, which the NYPD’s Patrol Guide defines as “pressure to the throat” that “hinders breathing,” has been prohibited since 1993, when it was forbidden in response to a rise in police custody deaths. The Patrolmen’s Benefit Association, the police union, has argued that the maneuver Pantaleo used to incapacitate Garner was something different, a “seat belt” takedown, and an appropriate response in the situation.
This would contradict the finding of a New York City medical examiner who issued a report in August, 2014, ruling Garner’s death a “homicide” due to “compression of neck (choke hold).” And it appeared that way to some who have viewed the video. “What nonsense,” wrote Queens councilman Rory Lancman on Twitter. “We all saw the video. It was a chokehold.
Activists reacted with anger. Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter, was reached minutes after he had heard the news. “This is a slap in the face to the black and brown citizens of NYC,” he said.
Black Twitter quickly fired up over the news.
The #CovingtonBoys are getting the White cop treatment: pretending they don’t see what they see.
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) January 22, 2019
“I know that the NYPD will throw everything at me in the upcoming trial in order to escape being held accountable for having killed Eric. But, I’m ready for the fight. I won’t give up until I get justice for my son,” Gwen Carr, mother of #EricGarner. pic.twitter.com/wzjTVbGuF9
— CPR Change the NYPD (@changethenypd) April 4, 2019
Of course the NYPD doc is going to side with the NYPD! That’s a no brainer. The Blue wall is strong.#EricGarner
— CKendallB (@CKendallB) April 5, 2019
— Eric Chiles (@EricChiles) April 5, 2019
— LennonEnglish (@Lennon_English) April 4, 2019
Some hoped the reaction goes beyond social media. “This should not be another hashtag… people need to stand with us” said Angelique Kearse, wife of Andrew Kearse, who died in the back of a police car in Schenectady. According to the Daily News, the state Attorney General’s office is investigating whether the officers in the car should have taken Kearse to the hospital when he had trouble breathing.