New York State

Matt Taibbi on how NYC killed Eric Garner

Biographer Matt Taibbi on how NYPD rules and gentrification led to tragedy.

A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City.

A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. A Katz/Shutterstock

Not long after Eric Garner died five years ago, journalist Matt Taibbi hopped on the case. He talked to dozens of people – family, friends and acquaintances – who knew Garner, the larger-than-life character whose death at the hands of the NYPD helped launch the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. Taibbi’s reporting turned into a 2017 book, “I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.” It doesn’t so much complicate the narrative of Garner’s death as shed light on its simplicity, caught on video for the world to see. The book also gets into the New York City policy decisions that led to Garner’s death, and the legal decisions afterward that mean the case is still, in some ways, unresolved. 

Taibbi, a New York native known for his work in Rolling Stone, talked to City & State on Wednesday about whether New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio deserves blame, why Garner’s death struck a national nerve and why there needs to be a way to fire bad cops.

Were you surprised by the U.S. Department of Justice announcing it won’t bring criminal charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s death?

Not really. The moment Jeff Sessions was named attorney general, he came out and said the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of doing this type of case. And one of his last acts was to write a memo spelling out greater control of these sorts of investigations and consent decrees by senior political appointees. That was a pretty strong signal that this case was probably not going to go forward, (U.S. Attorney General) William Barr or no William Barr. 

You published the book in late 2017. Has anything come to light since then that you wished you could have included?

That’s the thing about this case – it’s anti-suspenseful. The whole thing is right there on the video. The real question is, how is the policing job so broken that asking somebody to get into a car and come to a police precinct can turn into that so quickly? It’s a combination of a million things, including the complete absence of an effective way to weed out guys who are not good at the policing job, like Pantaleo apparently wasn’t. That’s one of the things that shook loose with this case. Guys who aren’t good at this and resort to force because they don’t have any other way of dealing with people on the street are just not weeded out of this job. There’s no really good mechanism for doing that.

You often hear that Eric Garner was “killed for selling a cigarette.” But you make the case that this wasn’t a random occurrence – that Garner was targeted.

And also that he wasn’t selling a cigarette. That was another thing that was maddening about the story. The first thing that I did when I decided to do a book was found as many people as I could who were (at Tompkinsville Park on the day of Garner’s death). And probably ended up talking to 30, 35 people, because there was a big crowd that day. There had been a fight just before that. Everyone had the same story. Garner showed up that morning, he was sick, he had an argument with several of his friends, ironically because he had called the police on somebody the night before. And as he was coming back to his (usual) spot, he broke up a fight, and then the police accosted him. And apparently this was because a lieutenant had seen Garner standing on the corner on the way into work, and then had sent these two guys back out to pick him up. 

It’s complicated, and it’s a quirk of the job, but from what the cops told me, if that happens, the quandary that the officers are in is that they have to get a piece of paper that shows that they did what they were told to do. Meaning they’ve got to have an arrest. That’s why they were so intent on getting him into the car – they couldn’t resolve it in any other way. And that’s the idiotic, bureaucratic reason why this happened.

You also tie the over-policing of that area to the existence of luxury condos near the park. But those condos have been around a long time.

They have, but the people who are in that park – which used to be called Needle Park, for obvious reasons – they’ll tell you that you would go six months without seeing a cop. Over time, there just started being more police in the area, and they’re not terribly subtle about how they do it. Unmarked cars show up in the neighborhood. For sure, there are more police there in 2014 than there were in 2004. 

It’s still a popular park for street people for a couple of reasons. There’s a methadone clinic up the street, and a lot of people come from there to the park to hang out. And they buy liquor at the liquor store. It’s kind of a street commerce area, but the condos are still there, so there’s this natural conflict. This was something that Garner talked about – that he was dealing with more and more instances of being moved off the corner or arrested than he had in the past.

Presidential candidate Julian Castro, who isn’t a New Yorker, mentioned Eric Garner in the first Democratic debate last month. What is it about this case that’s made such a lasting national impact?

I was on a talk show once, and before I went on air I was in the green room with someone who I’ll characterize as a well-known Democratic party official. He asked me what I was working on, and I said the Garner case. He said, “Oh, that’s the unequivocal one, right?” 

The Garner case is different from a lot of other police brutality cases because there’s really no way to sell it as anything but a gross miscarriage of justice. Garner’s not a violent guy. He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t committing a crime, and you couldn’t really argue that he was. So it’s a case that people across the political spectrum felt comfortable calling a police brutality case. That’s not necessarily the case when you’re talking about, say, Ferguson (Missouri, and the death of Michael Brown). There are narratives in right-wing media, for instance, that saw Ferguson a different way. But you couldn’t really sell the Garner case as anything else.

Do you think justice in this case is necessitated on Pantaleo being fired?

I don’t know. You could make the argument that he had a history before that incident. And I think that was one of the things that was borne out by the effort to get to his (Civilian Complaint Review Board) file. Staten Island had a history that was rich with people like Pantaleo who had been the subject of lawsuits and CCRB complaints. That precinct (the 120th) is (among) the worst in the city for that. The problem is that policing is a really difficult job. There are a lot of people in it who don’t have the sensitivity to do the job right. (Pantaleo) had a completely different approach to the job that was based on strong-arming people and intimidating them. If you do that, eventually you’re going to have an incident – maybe not of this magnitude, but something bad is going to happen. I don’t know if you can fire all of those guys, but there’s got to be a mechanism for dealing with that problem.

Does de Blasio deserve blame? Or was this out of his hands?

De Blasio made a complete mess of this entire issue. He somehow managed to alienate both the police force and the people who were pushing for punishment for Pantaleo at the same time. And he created a moment of anti-healing by staging that ridiculous press conference with (the Rev. Al) Sharpton and (then-NYPD Commissioner Bill) Bratton. In addition to not presiding over a period where there was effective discipline, he also managed the public relations aspect of this disaster about as badly as you possibly could. And we saw what happened. The city erupted in gigantic protest, and every move he made was maladroit. I don’t know if blame is the right word. I would just describe him as not having handled it all that well.