‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Life and Death

‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Life and Death


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I CAN’T BREATHE
A Killing on Bay Street
By Matt Taibbi
322 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.

“Homicide” is too simple a word for what happened to Eric Garner on that Staten Island sidewalk three years ago. Many of us would personally testify to the term’s technical accuracy, having watched, ad infinitum, the horrifying video of the 43-year-old grandfather and loose-cigarette dealer gasping for air as a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, uses a chokehold and wrestles Garner down to the pavement.

Saying that the chokehold killed Garner feels incomplete. Politics, race and money play roles in nudging us all to our fates, and Garner’s demise on July 17, 2014, involved all three. Assessing his end solely based on what happened that day is tempting, given the video evidence. However, a more thorough understanding is required.

Matt Taibbi, the author and Rolling Stone contributing editor, has published a new book that properly depicts the Garner killing as a consequence of our society’s ills. Its title, “I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street,” seems to imply a narrow focus on the Garner killing, belying the book’s prismatic approach to both the people and policies involved in Garner’s life and death.

Taibbi has recently come under renewed scrutiny for a 2000 book he co-wrote with Mark Ames, with whom he edited an English-language newspaper in 1990s Russia, in which they describe sexually harassing and assaulting their female employees. Taibbi has since posted two apologies on Facebook, saying that such passages in the book were intended as satire.

Satire or not, the criticisms will no doubt be disqualifying to some readers. But one should not mistake a review of this book on Garner with an endorsement of the author or his previous work. This time, as Taibbi wrote in one of his Facebook posts, he found a story that “had to be told without my voice, without linguistic cartwheels or jokes or any of the other circus tricks I learned to use.” Indeed, “I Can’t Breathe” is a work of deep reporting, as chapter by chapter, Taibbi introduces us to individual players — from Garner’s fellow street hustlers in the beleaguered Tompkinsville section of Staten Island to activists who protested the grand jury’s refusal to indict Pantaleo (a man whom we also get to know much better, as Taibbi unearths what he can of his past). The story of the Garners’ tumultuous and often combative family life is told by people who were there, including Garner’s daughter Erica, an activist. In this book, humanization does not equal lionization, and sympathy is never confused for pity. This applies to everyone, in particular the book’s principal subject. Though he aims to flesh out and contextualize what happened to Garner, this may be the most critical look at the man himself. Every fault, compulsion and bad choice is presented in full relief. Still, as Taibbi writes early on, “Eric Garner may have created a lot of his own problems, but he was also the victim of bad luck and atrocious timing.”

It is impossible to understand how society’s pressures and inequities wore Garner down without examining an obsession with providing for his family that went so deep that he ignored his own needs. But Taibbi’s reportorial voice, often blunt and forceful, is most compassionate when he is integrating political realities with facts about Garner and the incidents depicted. Taibbi describes in full the horrors of institutionalized poverty in neighborhoods like Tompkinsville, from the real-estate scams that created them to the overseer mentality of the police patrolling them. Crooked landlords and legal quagmires all shaped Garner’s world.

Taibbi is smart to depict the structurally racist system of law enforcement in this country as a character in and of itself. The misguided and destructive “broken windows” policing tactic is portrayed here as Frankenstein’s monster, built with good intentions without thought to tragic consequences. “Right or wrong, the threat of being stopped went from an annoyance to a thing that took over his life,” Taibbi writes. Like the Moirai of Greek mythology, other people made political choices that directed the course of Garner’s life and accelerated its end. The first half of the book, as it progresses, feels increasingly like a train without brakes that is rolling downhill. If readers are unfamiliar with the fatalism and frustration that racial discrimination, poverty and poor policing engender in men like Eric Garner, Taibbi provides an able introduction.



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