Straight Words

The death of Eric Garner and a granddaughter's right to know

By Richard B. Muhammad | Last updated: Feb 10, 2015 - 8:49:24 AM

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From left: Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, daughter Emerald Garner, mother Gwen Carr, and sister Ellisha Flagg attend a rally at the National Action Network headquarters for Eric Garner, July 19, 2014, in New York. Garner, 43, died during an arrest in Staten Island, when a plain-clothes police officer placed him in what appeared to be a choke hold while several others brought him to the ground and struggled to place him in handcuffs. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

(FinalCall.com) - The chilling death of Eric Garner, captured on videotape with his plaintive 11 cries of  “I can’t breathe” stoked anger, outrage and deep, deep pain.

Now that a secret grand jury has failed to indict police officers in the chokehold death, a New York judge is weighing whether the secret proceeding should be made public. “Transparency is better than secrecy. Light is better than darkness,” Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the media. The NYCLU is among several groups that petitioned the court, asking that what happened behind closed prosecutorial doors be brought into public light.

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We watched the life seeping out of the unarmed Staten Island, N.Y. resident in broad daylight last July. Shouldn’t we know why we shouldn’t believe our eyes?

The NYCLU said the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who wrapped Mr. Garner in the chokehold, and subsequent protests show deep distrust of the criminal justice system.

The age-old argument, and pillar of democracy, the public’s right to know is invoked to examine why, just as in other states, a grand jury was incapable of indicting a police officer for killing a Black man—literally before our eyes.

But there is another reason the grand jury proceeding should be made public: The youngest daughter of Mr. Garner, his granddaughter and his wife deserve to know what happened or what failed to happen.

Late last year, I had an exclusive interview with Emerald Snipes, 23, and her mother Esaw Garner. Her father “was always very educated, he loved to read, he loved to take care of his family,” she recalled. “He was the rock of the family; he was the glue of the family.” 

“He always instilled that respect—yes, no, thank you, please,” said Emerald. “He’s not this mean character, this big body person that’s aggressive. I want (people) to know that he was a caring person.”

Emerald has a five-year-old niece and a young child. “My daughter is 3 and every time she sees my father she would say … ‘Oh that’s my grandpa.’ So I told her grandpa’s in the sky. He’s in heaven: he’s looking at you. He’s in your heart. So now when she sees grandpa she says, ‘Grandpa is in the sky mommy.’ I say yes. She was like, ‘He’s in my heart?’ And I say yes. It kind of makes me emotional because she really loves him and she was very aware of who he was.”

She knows police used to harass her father. He talked to his family about the targeting. Family advice was simple: Let police say what they have to say, ignore it and leave it alone. From the video, it appears that Mr. Garner did that for some time. He says, “This (the harassment) ends today.” His words were prophetic.

You don’t see the bear of man move to hurt anyone. You hear him wheeze, “I can’t breathe,” with an arm around his neck and a swarm of officers around his body.

The 43-year-old had actually broken up a fight and was not selling loose cigarettes.

“It was definitely harassment from their end. He was evidently not treated with any type of respect; he was not treated with any type of care. I feel like if it was anybody  with the history that my dad had with those particular cops it would have still happened the same way,” said Emerald. “So I feel it’s a badge thing: ‘I have a badge so no matter what I do, I’m going to have this badge.  Nothing that I do is going to make me lose my job, or do time for what I did.’ ”

“I don’t want to say victims; I want to say casualties of war on our colored people,” said Esaw Garner, describing how she feels about her husband’s death. “My husband was a quiet man like I said before but he’s making a lot of noise now and we refuse to let him die in vain. I refuse, with my last dying breath, I will fight this to the end ’til we see justice not only for my husband but for all the other Black men of color that are being targeted and our children have to be in this country. I don’t feel like a victim. I feel like a casualty. I feel like a collateral damage.” The family has filed a $75 million civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York.

The district attorney involved contends, of course, secrecy is needed to protect grand jury witnesses and the process. The court is being asked to order the release of “the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of Pantaleo and dozens of other witnesses, detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation,” the Associated Press and CBS News reported. The district attorney said grand juries are protected by the state constitution and the information can’t be released without a constitutional amendment.

Emerald’s daughter isn’t old enough to understand why those involved in her grandfather’s death weren’t charged with a crime. But when she comes of age, she has a right to know what happened in the courtroom, just as she will be able to see what happened on the streets. Maybe something can be learned that can be used so the other granddaughters, daughter and wives can get a taste of a simple thing—justice. They are guaranteed not to get their loved one back.

Richard B. Muhammad is editor in chief of The Final Call newspaper. He can be reached at editor@finalcall.com. Find him on Facebook at Richard B. Muhammad and follow him on Twitter: @RMfinalcall. Catch his weekly segment Sundays at 8 a.m. CST on TouchFM.org.

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