“I can’t breathe” was one of the last things 44-year-old Eric Garner said after being arrested by New York Police Department officers and placed in what appears, in a bystander’s video, to be a chokehold.
The asthmatic African-American man was being detained on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk and died shortly after being taken into custody. With the city medical examiner ruling his death a homicide, it remains to be seen if the cop-friendly Staten Island district attorney will prosecute the law enforcement officers.
In another case that resulted not in death but trauma and severe humiliation, a 48-year-old woman in Brooklyn named Denise Stewart, also African-American, was dragged by male officers out of her apartment while she was clothed in only a towel and underwear. They were looking for the source of a domestic violence call that had been made from somewhere in the building and heard shouts coming from Stewart’s unit, but she told officers they had the wrong apartment. Stewart, who, like Garner is asthmatic, was left topless and screaming in desperation for her oxygen. Although she survived the encounter, she has now been charged with assaulting a police officer, and her son and two daughters have also been slapped with charges.
Both police encounters are attracting public outrage but perhaps only because they were videotaped by witnesses. In Garner’s case, Ramsey Orta, whose video of the arrest provides the clearest indication of what happened, has himself been arrested on unrelated weapon possession charges. Orta’s arrest has the potential to have a chilling effect on witnesses documenting such police encounters.