On 17 July 2014, New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo killed my father, Eric Garner. More than 11 minutes of video footage show Officer Pantaleo placing him in an illegal chokehold, and people all over the world soon learned my father’s final words: “I can’t breathe”. Faced with yet another incontrovertible act of police brutality, angered viewers formed resistance groups – practically overnight – to demand justice.
Today, the only person ever charged with a crime connected to my father’s death is Ramsey Orta, the man who recorded it all. After a controversial investigation, a grand jury failed to indict Officer Pantaelo for my father’s death. Since then, I’ve only fought harder for justice but, as the injustices pile up, I wonder if my fellow fighters will stay united long enough to win.
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Conflict can destroy movements. The need for funding turns allies into competitors scrambling for the spotlight. Media-ordained spokespeople co-opt the work of grassroots leaders. From tactical differences to infiltrator sabotage, internal struggles plague social change work – present movements against police brutality included.
But for months after my father’s homicide, I didn’t quite feel part of a movement at all. My family and a few locals rallied in Staten Island every Tuesday and Thursday; for hours, we would protest as passersby went on with their lives like they didn’t even see us standing there.
We needed more visibility, so I organized a demonstration at the very spot where Panteleo choked my father. I asked Al Sharpton if he could help with turnout, and he filled three whole busses. Cynthia Davis, the president of National Action Network’s Staten Island chapter, organized our media presence. About 30 members of the press covered the event. Someone uploaded video to YouTube; it went viral, and my photo was all over the world.
Every time I tweeted out a flyer for a rally, more people showed up. And when more people showed up, more cracks appeared in what had been a united front. People I trusted started voicing their disagreements and pressuring me into decisions I never wanted to make. I was even told not to work with National Action Network and to say my father’s death wasn’t about race.
From lies about what permits I needed to bad advice about dealing with police, the people I once thought supported me began to drown out my voice.
No matter: I kept organizing rallies and, by winter, dedicated supporters formed their own groups. NYC Shut It Down and Millions March formed to resist ongoing police brutality and institutional racism. I joined a network of activists that coalesced after my father’s death. I began to work with Twitter followers, including ones who gladly provided graphic design work for nearly every rally. All of them are the everyday people I strive to build this movement with.
But a disruptive element made its way into our group. An undercover right-wing political hit man, James O’Keefe (the same guy who took down Acorn), attended one my rallies. The next morning, I woke up to my face all over the news. Outlets pushed a doctored video of me, making it appear as though I had smeared Reverend Sharpton. O’Keefe meant to turn us against one another.
Despite the negative press from conservative media, my movement relationships grew stronger.
I stood in the cold shouting my father’s name all winter. In the spring, I took the fight directly to elected officials: I lobbied at the state capitol; I filed Freedom of Information Law (Foil) requests to gather any other complaints made against Pantaleo; I met with New York City public advocate Letitia James and other policy experts. I pursued every lead and exhausted every option to find justice for my father.
Nothing worked – and every time I’d hit a dead end, I’d hear about another terrible story like my father’s. Reality set in: I live within a system that regularly kills black people. My will to fight started to fade.
I wasn’t planning to do anything for the one-year anniversary of Officer Panteleo’s non-indictment last week, but news of Laquan McDonald’s murder and its cover-up hit too close to home. It was time to remind New York City of its own lingering injustices. It was time to put my feelings of frustration and anger back into the street.
I reached out to Justice League NYC, vocal organizers who fearlessly pursued justice for my father. We’d worked together before, and they’d always been supportive of me. I liked their event idea, #ChokeholdOnTheCity, and I respected the risk they took by teaming up with Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Disagreements arose early between other activists and the Justice League, but when the day came, I was just excited to join the group of 40 supporters. We planned to walk through Staten Island neighborhoods, stop at intersections and perform die-ins – a disruptive action where participants lie down in the street, blocking traffic to draw attention to state violence.
When we approached the spot where Officer Panteleo killed my dad, we stopped and held hands. I explained the need for unity, not just for my dad, but for black lives everywhere. As we activists fight each other, our opposition – from killer cops to corrupt elected officials – upholds this broken system and covers up injustices.
I know that the system rewards people who don’t deserve it because Daniel Donovan, the district attorney who mishandled the Panteleo’s grand jury case and gave immunity to all but one of the officers involved, now enjoys a seat in Congress. I know this because the newly elected district attorney, Michael McMahon, accepted the endorsement of Pat Lynch (the Police Benevolent Association President who blamed protestors like me for the assassination of two officers and encouraged what everyone in New York City knew as a police work slow-down) and refused to reconvene a new grand jury. I know this because my Foil requests – everyone’s Foil requests – keep getting denied. I know this because my father is dead and Panteleo’s still on NYPD’s payroll.
But right after my honest plea for peace and unity, all hell broke loose. While we stood on the very spot my dad was murdered, all anyone could do was argue over who got credit for the event. For 20 minutes, the demonstration devolved into name-calling and finger-pointing.
I tried to cut through it, directing people towards the upcoming highway artery – our target location – but all I could think was, Why here? Justice for my father seemed like the last thing on anyone’s mind. I felt like I had failed him and his memory.
By the time I got supporters moving again, we ran into 50 parked cop cars blocking the road in front of us. Our petty arguing had given them a strategic way to deploy unnoticed around us. There we were, in the heart of downtown Staten Island, completely surrounded, with no real way of continuing our march. It was over: we were divided and the cops of Staten Island won again.
The police are killing our people – that’s reason enough not to fight amongst ourselves. No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together. We build relationships with other activists and supporters, take the streets and risk arrest because we’re fighting for a world that truly values our lives. If those in power can remain coordinated and steadfast in their commitment to obscure the truth, then we can and must come together to demand transparency and accountability.
Some don’t understand why we’re still speaking out: the grand jury made a decision; we settled with the city. Some believe we have our answers and should just move on with our lives. But not me. I can never forget. I will never give up. And neither should you.
I will be back on Staten Island, with even more people, demanding real answers to my father’s unjust death. I just need you to join me.