For five long years, the judicial system has avoided holding police liable for the chokehold murder of Eric Garner, a Black man accused of selling loose cigarettes. The same system is targeting Ramsey Orta, a Puerto Rican/Black man whose video of the killing sparked global outrage. Garner’s last words —“I can’t breathe,” gasped out 11 times — became a nationwide rallying cry against police violence.
Ramsey Orta’s resolute fight. The day after New York’s chief medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and Orta’s video went viral, NYPD’s finest began their revenge. By retaliating against him, they sought also to intimidate others from providing such stunning video evidence of police brutality. As Orta walked near his home, cops piled from a van and surrounded him, holding cameras in his face and sneering, “Smile, motherfucker.” They cuffed and arrested him claiming he had a gun — which he didn’t.
At notorious Rikers jail, all the COs (correctional officers) knew exactly who Orta was. Chloé Cooper Jones of The Verge reported, “He told me that COs taunted, ‘You’re ours now. Not so tough without your camera!’” Since then, Orta has been transferred at least nine times, each prison farther away from friends and support.
Staten Island activist Sista Shirley says, “They’ve framed him over and over again.” COs endlessly ticket Orta for trivial or phony offenses so they can throw him into solitary confinement and lengthen his jail time. “What you’re seeing with Ramsey — that happens to people who are specifically targeted,” reports Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. Orta files grievances, which are investigated by prison staff, and dismissed. Currently Orta is in solitary for the fifth time, serving 90 days.
Despite harassment and solitary confinement, Ramsey Orta is pressing on. “I’m trying to do something good with my life, something good for my community. And that’s when I really get in trouble? Not the drugs, not the gang stuff, the video?” The legal structure’s answer is, yes — to Orta and others who challenge its racism and cover-up.
System-wide injustice. Breaking news on June 26, 2019, revealed that NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau received 2,495 complaints of biased policing since 2014 but substantiated none of them. Despite glaring evidence of discriminatory practices, including racial, ethnic and religious profiling, sexual abuse, and targeting Trans people and immigrants, the police’s internal investigation of bias produced nothing but a whitewash.
Eric Garner’s murder and Ramsey Orta’s persecution are stark evidence that not only the police but the entire justice system is riddled with discrimination and corruption.
Shortly after Garner died, the NYC medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. A Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo despite the report and video evidence. New York City settled the family’s wrongful death suit for $5.9 million. This required no admission of fault by the city and let the cops off the hook.
Four years after Garner’s death, the supposedly independent oversight body, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), finally launched its investigation. Their findings forced NYPD Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill to schedule an administrative hearing for May, 2019. Pantaleo refused to testify. Three officials affirmed that Pantaleo used an illegal chokehold, and two Internal Affairs investigators testified they recommended in 2015 that he face disciplinary charges, but were overruled.
Going after Garner under the infamous “Broken Windows” policy of cracking down on minor offenses — which historically targets Black and Latino men — was not brought out at this departmental trial. Neither was Pantaleo’s long history of abuse, because misconduct records are kept secret. But as ThinkProgress reported from leaked documents, Pantaleo had seven prior disciplinary complaints and 14 individual allegations filed against him. If the CCRB had power to enforce its findings, Pantaleo would almost certainly have been booted out years earlier.
The May hearing was an NYPD trial, not a criminal proceeding. The “judge,” a deputy police commissioner, will send her recommendations to the Police Commissioner, who has the final say. Due in September 2019, the Commissioner’s decision need not be made public. The evidence and result of the actual hearing are also not required to be placed in the public record. They’re erasable.
Meanwhile, on July 16, Department of Justice head William Barr vetoed filing federal charges against Pantaleo, overriding the department’s civil rights division. Pantaleo remains on the job, riding a desk and racking up enormous overtime pay. No criminal charges can be filed against him. Nor have there been penalties or criminal charges against the other officers present at Garner’s death.
No Justice! No Peace! The grassroots Black community, together with other communities of color and social justice organizations are pressing the fight for police accountability. The campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board is one of the ways activists are organizing to curb police abuse. This proposed review board would include the power to discipline and fire police for misconduct, including retaliation against witnesses such as Orta. And it would empower an elected special prosecutor to bring criminal charges against the police. (See StopPoliceViolenceNYC.org. )
To support Ramsey Orta, donate to help with commissary and visitation costs through his PayPal, using email@example.com, and write him letters addressed to: Ramsey Orta, 16A4200, Collins Correctional Facility, Middle Rd., PO Box 340, Collins, NY 14034-0340.