On July 17th, New York City policemen wrestled a forty-three-year-old man named Eric Garner to the ground in front of a beauty salon on Staten Island. They claimed to have seen Garner selling cigarettes illegally, something he’d been known to do. But not this time, he protested. “I did nothing,” he said. “I’m just here minding my own business, officer. … Please, just leave me alone!” Despite Garner’s pleas, Daniel Pantaleo, a plainclothesman wearing cargo shorts and a baseball cap, came up behind him and put him in a chokehold; while Garner writhed on the pavement, three other cops rushed in to cuff him. Garner was a large man—six feet three inches tall and three hundred and fifty pounds—and asthmatic. Within seconds he was unconscious, and within minutes, dead. He gasped his last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
Many of us have watched this scene, in a widely circulated video shot by a bystander. When Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, found out about the video on the night of her son’s death she felt, for a moment, a sense of relief. “I said to myself, ‘There is a God,’ ” she told me when we met at her Staten Island home this past weekend. At least there was clear evidence of what had happened to her son, Carr thought, although she could not bring herself to watch it.
Five months later, the video is at the center of the deliberations of a New York City grand jury, which is expected to decide any day whether there is enough evidence for prosecutors to bring charges against the police officers and proceed to trial. New York is one of some thirty states that usually rely on a grand jury to decide whether a felony case should go to trial. (Other states tend to have a judge make that determination.) The threshold for going to trial—probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed—is low, but prosecutors have notoriously wide latitude in terms of what they choose to present to a grand jury. Carr told me that her main concern, particularly after Ferguson, is that protracted deliberations mean that the prosecutor is essentially trying the case before the grand jury.