To this day I can’t watch the Eric Garner video fully. Just because he wasn’t swinging from a tree doesn’t mean he was breathing.
Editor’s Note: Last week Eric Garner’s mother testified before Congress in hopes of raising awareness about the US pandemic of police brutality, particularly against minority groups. We are extremely honored to have in this issue of County Democrat Reader National Guest Writer Vonti McRae, who shares her insight as a native New Yorker and vocal opponent of police brutality.
What she does not write below is that she happens to be the daughter of a NYPD officer, adding a personal view of the subject to which few are privy.
Vonti came up on our radar via her influencer status in the blogosphere where, at the www.therealvonti.com site, she shares with excruciating detail her journey as a woman, a woman of color, navigating the corporate and creative professional jungles.
What I have found striking about Vonti, getting to know her better during the last few months, is her striking ability to draw any reader into her world as if they were a friend and passenger. Her use of prose is profound. She sheds words as casually as a cat sheds its hair, but they often land like a punch to the face.
Vonti holds a MFA in Film from the Academy of Art (where she was also hired as an online Film Instructor, teaching Screenwriting), and completed her undergraduate work in Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. She has published numerous articles in national publications, including most recently womensenews.org, won the Cinemax Urban Action Showcase writers competition for her screenplay
“Queenpin”, and was named runner up for Best New Writer at the
Action on Film Festival for her animated TV series, “Mob Rats”. She has also appeared recently on the TrillMBA Podcast.
In May of 2018 I took on a job that a friend referred me to. I was working at a major TV studio but needed extra income. Living in Brooklyn, NY where the average cost for a one bedroom apartment is over $2,000 monthly in a newly developed building. So if I ever had a chance to move; I needed more income. So I became a cab driver in the Canarsie area of Brooklyn. The cabstand was located at a strip mall where people did all kinds of things including selling loose cigarettes. Met a unique character out there who had an engaging personality and a laugh that made you smile each day. I’d sit next to him talking about life as customer after customer handed him change or dollars to get their daily fix of nicotine. I wasn’t angry that he could sit on a crate and make more than me in two hours than I made busting my butt driving around for 8 hours. As the cigarette man he wasn’t violent, was well known in the neighborhood and people cracked jokes with him about what to do if the police showed up. From hopping on his bicycle and trying to escape, to ditching it and taking a chance running through the project buildings, getting the NYPD lost in the many corridors and alleyways of those buildings. Years prior my heart broke for another man named Eric Garner. A neighborhood fixture who decided to get a few extra bucks selling “loosies” (as we call it).
On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons after being put into an illegal chokehold by the NYPD. Officer Pantaleo unfortunately took the life of Mr. Garner for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the streets in Staten Island, NY. It was caught on video by a bystander who looked on in shock as Garner yelled through labored breath “I can’t breathe”.
So how many people does it take to stop someone from selling a “loosie”? Apparently one police officer using an illegal chokehold and getting away with said murder.
Back then I was flabbergasted for many reasons. Watching a man die on TV is just as bad as knowing the crime committed doesn’t fit the bill for excessive violence. Because you can go into any corner bodega throughout NY and get loose cigarettes. In the 90’s we’d hit up the guy on the block or most stores in the area to get loosies. In this town you get creative as prices hike up but your income doesn’t follow. So once I heard a man had been killed in broad daylight for what’s done on an average day in NYC; it was hard to take. Tell me a person who doesn’t have a side hustle here and I’d tell you they’re a liar. Most of us who struggle to survive in a big rich town can’t afford to not work. Even the homeless hop on the subway for free and will do a little dance for change.
His death became yet another rallying cry for the Black Community to wake up! Only two years prior a black teen named Trayvon Martin was followed home and killed by neighborhood watch. Hearing the tape from the 911 operator pleading with his killer to let it go made me want to give up on the country I was born into.
Some of us are enraged but complacent at the same time because of the shackles on our feet. It’s the most tiring thing to have a target on your back just for being black. Walking out of a boardroom, onto the street, through retail stores, in cars, on beaches, doing sports, music, news, peaceful protests or asking for justice. We are reminded every hour of every single day that the first thing people look at is the melanin in our skin. Could you imagine never being able to blend in anywhere in the world? Standing out in a large crowd filled with the majority, but you are the minority. I’m exhausted and sometimes wish I could stop the first Black Slave from ever getting dragged onto that boat, shipped to foreign lands, ripped apart from their family and never being seen again by their tribe.
Slavery in the Americas began in the 17th century and here we are in the 21st century still trying to survive. A century is 100 years long, yet 500 years later we are still fighting for equal rights. After Donald Trump won the election in 2016, Pamela Taylor went on social media and called the First Lady Michelle Obama an “ape in heels”. She said it would be refreshing to have a dignified first lady in the White House moving forward. Essentially labeling the First Lady of the United States with racist rhetoric that harkens back to slavery and viewing her as subhuman. Calling black people monkeys, apes or n*ggers is not only offensive but perpetuates a culture that further supports the violent, history-altering and cultural attacks on the race.
Black babies are being born and when they are capable of comprehension we have to teach them how to be safe in the world. Across this country we all get the same speech in one form or another: Be kind, respectful, don’t talk back to police, do what they say, never be aggressive or talk loud, mind your manners in the streets, work ten times harder than everyone in the room and most of all, remember that you are black in America.
August 1, 2014, days after Eric Garner’s memorial service, the city medical examiner’s office ruled Garner’s death from neck compressions a homicide. Confirmation brought solidarity with his family and protestors to stand up and fight for justice. That month over 2,500 protestors joined hands in Staten Island crying for justice. In September, the Garner family hired Dr. Michael Bladen, a forensic pathologist, who agreed with the medical findings that the chokehold was fatal. However, in December of that same year a grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to indict Officer Pantaleo for his actions. Triggering further protests, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities would conduct a civil rights investigation.
By 2015 the final tally of black men killed by police was 1,134 despite making up only 2% of the total black population of 10%. Our last Census Bureau check on the population was in 2010 stating that white Americans (including white Hispanic) make up over 70% of the US population. While 49% of white people in 2015 were killed by police, black men accounted for another 24% that were fatally shot. If you run those numbers correctly which I so hope you will — 70% being white made up almost half of the police shootings and 2% of black men made up 24%. Almost half of what is a much larger population of people are fatally shot by police. So essentially a smaller pool of people rivaled a larger pool of people trending at a similar rate. One victim of this trend took five years to get mediocre justice for helping people puff a cigarette.
In July of 2015, Eric Garner’s family settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the city. By 2017, with the support of Al Sharpton, the family continued to put pressure on Justice Department officials to make a decision on charges being brought against Officer Pantaleo. On July 16, 2018 the NYPD said it will move forward with disciplinary action against the officer, stating they’ve run out of patience with the federal authorities indecision on the case.
Fast forward to May of 2019 and the disciplinary trial for Officer Pantaleo that unveils the chokehold used meets the definition of a hold that had been banned in the 1990s. On July 16, 2019 federal prosecutors step out of the boxing ring to let it be handled locally, saying no charges will be filed against the Officer. August 19, 2019 NYPD Commissioner James O’neil announced Officer Pantaleo would be fired and lose his pension. Later that day Union President Patrick Lynch held a press conference condemning the verdict and calling Pantaleo an “exemplary officer”, negating the pain that the Garner family has suffered waiting on justice for a non-violent offender.
All this does is keep a country divided and my black community closing up ranks. Many of us are highly distrustful of fair justice here in America. We weren’t surprised at all with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There was a massive target on our backs the entire time the Obamas were in office. The supremacists were out in full force and the violence towards our community was increasing rapidly. I mean let’s be honest, people literally believe that Chicago is the deadliest place in America. Meanwhile they don’t even break the top 20 most violent places in the USA. However you can’t tell the racists this because when they turn on the news, open up a newspaper or read news articles online Chicago is at the top of the heap.
Let us also keep it real for just one moment. Do people who commit crimes need to go to prison, and is excessive force warranted? Absolutely. I’d want police to follow procedure for any person committing violent crimes such as these mass shootings plaguing our country and taking the lives of innocent people. What I vehemently don’t agree with is the use of illegal excessive force against unarmed non-violent offenders.
For instance in September of 2019 a six year old black child was handcuffed and taken to a Juvenile Detention Center for throwing a tantrum in class. Guess you aren’t allowed to throw yourself on the floor and rail against students nor teachers. She was lacking sleep due to sleep apnea and was grumpy at school. Apparently that warrants jail time for a six year old.
That same year in November of 2014, police shot an unarmed 12 year old African American child for playing in the park with a bebe gun. His young sister had to watch him die as they arrested her as well. A falsely inaccurate 911 call was made claiming a man was waving around a gun. The shooting was also caught on video and you clearly see before the police cruiser even pulls to a full halt the officer fires his weapon. No restraint, no investigation into the circumstance or anything. Just the Wild Wild West coming to fruition for all to witness. A life taken without proper justification and yet another family torn to pieces because of it. The list goes on and on with the stories that make national news for the world to see.
But it’s the hundreds and sometimes thousands who don’t end up on your TV that disheartens me. Those archival black and white photos showing black men, women and children hanging from trees are devastating. Imagine seeing that in living color on your high def TV as their final breathes whisper from their lungs. What have we left for the future generations to see? Black people assassinated, run after by police dogs, choked, strangled, dismembered and shot at for centuries? World Wars have been started for a lot less and yet here we stand. Still hopeful but fearful of this world nonetheless.
Written By: Vonti McRae