BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
On July 17th, 2014, Eric Garner died in Staten Island at the hands of a New York City police officer, which we probably wouldn't know if it weren't for a cellphone video that captured his arrest, the chokehold and excessive force that would kill him and his final words.
ERIC GARNER: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…
[VOICES/SOUND UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for protesters, intensified after a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible for his death.
PEOPLE CHANTING: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The national media couldn’t look away.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A white NYPD officer not indicted in the death of --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The coroner says that this is a homicide, end of story.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Justice Department has announced a federal investigation into the Garner case, now that this grand jury decision has come down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Until they did look away. Matt Taibbi is a journalist and author of the new book, I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, an exploration of Eric Garner’s life and death in the media and in his real life.
MATT TAIBBI: Eric Garner was a complex, funny, contradictory, flawed person, a guy who got behind the eight ball a little bit early in life. He married when he was still in his teens and his wife had children already. He started down a road of dealing drugs before he really figured life out, and things kind of happened to him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How old was he?
MATT TAIBBI: He was 43 at the time. He had diabetes. He worked selling cigarettes out in the streets, eight, nine, ten hours a day, rain or shine on his feet all day long. One of his dreams was to be able to sit down at work. He, he had a dream about a stool.
And, and, you know, that was just something that wasn't available to him. It’s details like that that made me feel for the guy, without having ever met him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have the individual, very complicated. You have his symbolic importance. That’s not all that complicated at all. Depending on which side you are, you know exactly how you feel. And you can concede in the book that as these violent encounters play out, both sides are cast in familiar roles.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. One of the things that happens almost right away is that talking points develop that excuse, whatever happened. Eric Garner was menacing, right? Michael Brown, the police officer involved, talked about how it was like trying to wrestle Hulk Hogan. Even in a case like the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in, in Cleveland who got shot ‘cause he was waving around a toy gun, just like Emmett Till a million years ago, you would hear descriptions that he was big for his age, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
MATT TAIBBI: So the police are often depicted as these sort of helpless weaklings who are struggling against these superhuman creatures.
The other talking point that’s very common and came into play with the Garner case is the idea of, why didn’t he just go? The police asked him to get in the car, he didn’t get in the car, he said no. What else were they supposed to do? Well, you could argue that one a couple of different ways. One thing you can’t call it, in this case, is resisting arrest because I think resisting arrest requires an actual valid arrest. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You point out in the book, a familiar charge in many of these cases is interfering with the administration of government business.
MATT TAIBBI: If you go and sit in any municipal courtroom here in New York City, you’ll pretty quickly hear people arraigned for something that they call OGA, which is obstructing government administration. Sometimes it’ll be obstructing pedestrian traffic or refusal to obey a lawful order of the police. All of these fall under the general rubric of disorderly conduct. Years ago, I covered a case involving a guy who was arrested for obstructing pedestrian traffic while standing in front of his own home -- he was, he lived in a project tower in Bed Sty -- in the middle of the night. There is nobody else for miles around, there was nobody on the street but he gets arrested for this charge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know how rare it is for the police officers who killed a person to be convicted of that crime. And you say that a lot of this has to do with something that you call the “brutality scandal playbook.” Garner’s family and their lawyers found they couldn't get even the most basic information, and this is part of the playbook.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, exactly. When the press tried to find out whether or not Daniel Pantaleo had abuse incidents in his
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the police officer who used the chokehold.
MATT TAIBBI: Exactly. What they found out is that you're not entitled to that information. Somebody from the CCRB, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, leaked to the local media that he did have a history of abuse complaints. But for that leak we wouldn’t know because you can’t get it by filing a freedom of information request. You can’t typically get it by suing. There is a loophole in the Civil Rights Statute, Section 50-a, which says that any information that can be used to evaluate the performance of a police officer must be kept confidential.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which leads me to another meme --
MATT TAIBBI: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- the sense that putting that information out there is dangerous to the public, and it was put this way by the New York police union chief Pat Lynch. Here’s what he said after two police officers were killed in December of 2014, the same year Garner was killed.
PAT LYNCH: There’s blood on many hands tonight. Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day, it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the Office of the Mayor.
MATT TAIBBI: They blamed everyone from Barack Obama to Al Sharpton to Bill de Blasio for creating this sort of general atmosphere of disrespect towards police officers that leads, in their mind, to people not obeying when cops tell them to do things, and that is the reason why these incidents happen. It's not the fault of the police officers, it's the people who created this atmosphere of disrespect who are to blame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a certain paradox here among many who view these events.
MATT TAIBBI: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The bad cop is the villain. You wrote that Eric Garner was murdered by history, involved in something much bigger than himself. And you make a similar case for the police in this story. They, too, are operating against a backdrop that we need to understand and we don't see.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. The way they describe it in the news, somebody loses his or her temper for a few seconds and somebody dies and we should all be very upset about it. In fact, what we should be mad about are the decisions made in quiet contemplation over periods of weeks and months and years that become policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what policies?
MATT TAIBBI: The worst example is, you know, the broken windows policing theories, which are based on the idea that if you target minor behavior, if you stop people from jumping turnstiles or riding bicycles the wrong way down the sidewalk or drinking out of open containers on the street, if you target that behavior, then eventually serious crime will also drop. And so, in this city, anyway, they used to stop 500, 600, 700,000 people a year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Principally black and Hispanic.
MATT TAIBBI: Almost entirely black and Hispanic, in a city that’s more than half white. And look, if you do this often enough, you don’t have time to wait for probable cause to see somebody do something wrong. You have to get to a place psychologically where you believe the people you're stopping are guilty before you stop them. And so, most of the time --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
MATT TAIBBI: -- they would end up checking a box that led to something legally meaningless like a furtive movement or a bulge in a pocket or something like that, or “we saw the person dropping the drugs as they were fleeing.”
You learn after years in the force that there are all these tricks that you should employ that make the arrest okay. And it’s these smallish lies that are stuck through the justice system all over that it’s like a disease and a rot, and it’s hard to explain to people. They don’t see what the big deal is. Okay, the guy had drugs, so who cares? But what do we have laws for if they’re not to be followed? And if you get stopped often enough, frequently for nothing, eventually you get mad and somebody says a cross word and then one of these incidents happens.
So, statistically speaking, if you’re gonna stop 700,000 more people than you were before, a few of those people are gonna die, and some of them might even be police officers. It’s a system that encourages and creates a whole universe of contacts between the population and the police that are fraught from the start. That's the problem that we have to be focusing on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about fatigue. Everyone in your book, the protesters, the lawyers, the friends and families of Garner, the public, all experienced fatigue at some point during this story, outrage fatigue, sadness fatigue, legal fatigue.
MATT TAIBBI: I think it plays an enormous role. The character that I start the book with is a guy named Ibrahim Annan who was attacked by police. He was in his car. The police charged him with marijuana possession and he had his legs smashed in three places. But because of the way the system is set up, you have to be cleared of all of your own criminal charges before you can file a federal criminal lawsuit. And that process, just of getting out of all of the charges that they filed against him after he --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which were not based on anything?
MATT TAIBBI: He was acquitted of all of them, ultimately, let’s put it that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MATT TAIBBI: That process took two and a half years, and that’s only the start of the process of suing the police for this whole incident. So, in order to get any kind of remuneration for this, you have to be prepared, in some cases, for a four-, five-, six-year ordeal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s just to get a decent settlement.
MATT TAIBBI: Right, exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actual justice seems almost always beyond reach.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. I asked Al Sharpton about this in the book, and even Sharpton said, look, obviously, always the goal is permanent structural change, but sometimes that’s not there. So if you can’t hit a home run, get on base. That’s a difficult philosophical question. Is it okay to just settle for the money, if that’s all there is to get in, in the American justice system?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the epilogue, referring to Garner, you talk about the lengths that we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions. What are we -- you, me, anybody listening -- how are we responsible?
MATT TAIBBI: I think to a lot of upscale white urban voters, there’s this tradeoff where they voted for politicians who are socially liberal, like Mike Bloomberg who is, you know, in favor or gay marriage but was tough on crime, right --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
MATT TAIBBI: -- and didn’t really want to know or didn’t want to investigate what was underneath phrases like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MATT TAIBBI: And what was underneath phrases like that really was the institution of police tactics that were designed to keep black and Hispanic males from going into rich white neighborhoods.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggest in the book that Garner was targeted because he was slovenly and unkempt, so the cops were directed simply to get him out.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I talked to a drug dealer who worked that part of Staten Island, the Tompkinsville Park area. He said, when I first got here I would go six months without seeing a police officer but you can point across the street now and you can see that there are these high rise condominium developments that are coming up. Ever since those towers went up, suddenly all of these really, really minor transactions are being policed very, very heavily. And I asked people, would Eric Garner be alive today if not for those condominium towers, and most of the people said yes.
So, ultimately, this is a story about segregation. It’s a, it’s about how people in big cities still aren’t ready to really live together, and the police are essentially making that segregation possible by using these policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that in order for patterns to repeat themselves, people first have to forget and that, quote, “like prisoners of ourselves, we seem doomed to repeat patterns over and over.” How do we escape? How do we move forward?
MATT TAIBBI: We have to know the history. I mean, ever since the Civil War, we've had laws in place that have allowed police to arrest black people who have wandered out of their neighborhoods, who have gone to the wrong places. They were called vagrancy laws once. You could be arrested for things like impudence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Interfering with government administration?
MATT TAIBBI: It, it’s exactly the same thing. If you go to black neighborhoods, they’ll say this isn’t anything new. In a lot of these communities ideas like broken windows never had a chance to be taken seriously, except as the latest con forced on them by a system that was stacked against them. And that's because of the history we are mostly ignorant of, and so, I think we do need to know that history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matt, thank you very much.
MATT TAIBBI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of the new book on the life and death of Eric Garner called, I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.
Speaking of history, Matt, one last question? It's something that's come up. A number of years ago, you are involved in some controversy regarding pretty Weinstein-ish behavior.
MATT TAIBBI: What you’re referring to is a chapter in a book that I co-wrote with a, a guy named Mark Ames that was about a newspaper that I had in Russia called The Exile. And what I can say is that the behavior that’s described in a chapter that was written by Mark was like a lot of things in The Exile, not based on fact. None of that is true. I have never, in Russia or the United States, ever used sexually-suggestive comments or made advances to any employee in any office, here or abroad. The Exile was satirical. It was designed to get a rise out of people, trying to be offensive. We were young and dumb. I was 27 years old. There was content that was sophomoric and offensive and there are things that I may have thought were appropriate back then that I clearly do not now, in the 15 to 20 years that I’ve been back in the States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But basically, the chapter that's causing the controversy -- was BS.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. Well, like a lot of things that we wrote and a lot of things that Mark wrote. You know, the, The Exile, a lot of it was fictional. I apologize to my readers for, you know, my insensitivity and poor judgment and, and --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How long ago was that?
MATT TAIBBI: That was 1997.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Twenty years ago.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, it was 20 years ago. But I, I, I can’t stress enough that, although there were a lot of things in The Exile that I do have regrets about, you know, I, I never actually did those behaviors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, thanks.
MATT TAIBBI: All right, thank you.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Coming up, the partial release of JFK assassination documents. No matter, we still won't believe them.
RON ROSENBAUM: Americans who saw the Zapruda film were then prepared to believe explanations that said if there was a gunman who shot from the front that meant there was a conspiracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.