Friday marks one year since Eric Garner, a black man, died on Staten Island after being put in a chokehold by a white police officer, who stopped him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.
A video of Garner’s demise, shot by a bystander that showed Garner saying “I Can’t Breathe" 11 times, sparked a national movement and calls for equal justice in communities of color.
Subsequent deaths of unarmed men followed, including Michael Brown in Ferguson and Walter Scott in South Carolina, followed by protests and a national dialogue on the value of black lives.
Metro spoke to several key players about what has changed over the last year, and the work that still needs to be done.
What has been the greatest policy change since Eric Garner died?
Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother: Of course it was the executive order [appointing Eric Schneiderman as special prosecutor] because that was the biggest change we’ve gotten so far. We’re looking for more; that’s a temporary fix.
Norman Siegel, civil rights attorney: The Garner death has had a huge impact on the discussion about police-community relations. The body cameras on police was spearheaded by Garner’s death. The use of video footage by residents became very clear that it changes the framework of the controversy, if Ramsey Orta wouldn’t have taken, we would not have seen what actually happened, and I think it opened not only New Yorkers but people throughout American what happens out on the street.
Constance Malcolm, activist and mother of Ramarley Graham, who was shot and killed by police in 2012: We have the executive order, but everyday you turn on the news, someone’s still getting killed. Nobody’s taken responsibility, nobody’s gone to jail, done any time, getting fired. So I don’t really see any change.
Council member Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn): There has been demonstrable change, from the appointment of a special prosecutor for police killings, to promising conceptual efforts toward a new NYPD's neighborhood policing model. Separately, additional funding for programs like youth jobs and New York City's Crisis Management System will help reduce violence through a holistic approach. Clearly these are just continuing steps in a journey far from completed.
There have been massive protests in NYC and across the country in the wake of police shooting or killing unarmed men. How was New York different?
Carr: The protesters are sticking together, there’s more awareness now, before people might have just looked the other way. They were united, and it spread all over the U.S., uniting people all over the world. In other states, they had riots, and there was a lot of confusion, but after New York set the tone, I think they followed our example, especially the Garner family.
Siegel: Going to the streets, for many of us that’s the only option we have, the safety valve for people to use the First Amendment. The demonstrations were different than Ferguson and they were peaceful, there was no violence or burning of stores, and I think to the credit of the protesters, they by and large took their anger and channeled it in a First Amendment, peaceful demonstration. The fact that it continues, there’s a big demonstration on Saturday with thousands of people [expected] encourages me that people are not going to let this disappear.
Malcolm: People are frustrated, some of the stuff that happened [in Ferguson], I don’t agree with it, but you have to understand why people got to that reaction. New York is an example to the rest of the country, because we never sat down and took anything. Younger people are really more involved now than they were before, and it’s because they see their peers getting killed by police, and again, no accountability. You look at the elderly that fought for civil rights back in the day, and they changed it. They didn’t stay home to wait for it to get done. They stayed in the street, and they were persistent. They thought 'if I could be in the street, and voice my opinion, I could make change.'
Williams: I believe the results of the recent election helped. Voters spoke at the poles for a shift in policies and having a new administration certainly aided in peoples hope. Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for how he handled the protests. By allowing New Yorkers to demonstrate their anger and let their voices be heard through non-violent protests, our City was able to avoid destructive behavior and begin the healing process needed.
What is the one change you or the people of New York are waiting for?
Carr: We’re still waiting for justice, and that’s our main concern. Until we get justice, we will not have peace. To me, justice looks like these officers, all of the ones that caused my son’s death that day stand accountable for their gross misconduct.
Siegel: A realistic retraining of police officers so they’re out of their cars and walking the beat, trained to find out who is the bodega owner, who is in the barber shop, the park, to know people on a first-hand basis, to say good morning, to almost go back in time to when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. This can’t be a PR campaign, it has to be an effective retraining so officers are a part of the community.
Malcolm: We are waiting to see an officer who commits a crime is actually charged with a crime. Because a lot of time they are charged with a civil rights violation, not manslaughter. They never get convicted on that. We have to turn to the Department of Justice for them to come in and investigate and bring up civil rights charges.
Williams : I believe New Yorkers are waiting for a full cultural-systemic shift within our police department, including accountability for officer actions, to best improve police-community relations. But even more importantly, New Yorkers are waiting for proper resources that will holistically improve communities of more color that experience police brutality, higher gun violence and higher incarceration rates. We must do better at including agencies that deal with education, housing, health and jobs. The day has to come when the public safety space is not only owned by law enforcement.
(Interviews were edited for length and clarity.)