Officer Daniel Pantaleo wanted to arrest Garner, a forty-three-year-old black man, for selling individual cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island. Garner denied he’d been breaking the law, and when Pantaleo came at him with handcuffs, moved his hands away and said, ‘Don’t touch me please’. Pantaleo jumped on Garner’s back, grabbed his neck, and pushed his head facedown against the pavement. Garner screamed in a whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’, eleven times.
The New York City Medical Examiner’s office ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide, caused by ‘compression of the neck’ - a procedure known as a ‘chokehold’. African American legal scholar and former prosecutor, Paul Butler, uses the chokehold, as metaphor for understanding how racial oppression functions in the U.S. The chokehold, ‘justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip that is on it.’ The Chokehold means that what happens in places like Ferguson and Baltimore—where the police routinely harass and discriminate against African Americans—is not a flaw in the criminal justice system. Ferguson and Baltimore are examples of how the system is supposed to work. The problem is not bad apple cops. The problem is policing itself.