Wednesday, 17 March 2021 14:44


Written by
in Poetry

(i.m. Eric Garner 17th July 2014)

by Annie Wright, with image by John Minchillo


Eric Garner, neighbourhood peacemaker, has just stopped
a fight on Bay Street, Staten Island, New York NYPD
when he’s accused of selling loosies* without a licence by five cops.

Pantaleo tries to cuff him, slams him to his knees,
then pushes Eric’s face into the sidewalk.
Garner’s saying I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

The black female sergeant, Adonis, doesn’t intervene,
later saying it didn’t seem serious. I can’t breathe –
I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

She didn’t think he was distressed. I can’t breathe
Pantaleo has still got him in a chokehold, illegal
in New York State. I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

A cop calls an ambulance. Mr Garner’s having trouble
breathing. Eric’s friend, Ramsey Orta, films it on his phone;
he can’t breathe bro – he can’t breathe. He redoubles

his efforts, but it’s going to be too late. I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe. He’s gone.
They turn him on his side to ease breathing and for seven minutes leave

him. Sirens screaming, four medics arrive, don’t give Eric any medical
aid or oxygen, or even get him quickly on a stretcher.
Eric Garner has a heart attack on the way to hospital.

One hour later he’s pronounced dead at the Medical Center
in New York State, where he couldn’t breathe,
he couldn’t breathe.

*loosies – individual cigarettes


Between 1980 and his death, Eric was arrested
30 times, for assault, resisting arrest and grand
larceny for selling unlicensed cigarettes.

In 2007 he filed a complaint in federal court
against a police officer for conducting a cavity search,
digging his fingers in my rectum in the street.

In 2013 Pantaleo was the subject of two civil rights
lawsuits, accused of abuse, false arrests and ordering
two black men to strip naked on the street to be searched.


20th July 2014, Pantaleo and D’Amico
are on desk duty with Pantaleo stripped
of his badge and gun. Four paramedics
are suspended. Two return to work,

the others are kept on non-medical
duties, pending an inquiry. On 1st August
the medical examiner rules Eric’s death
as homicide resulting from neck and chest

compression, and prone positioning
during physical restraint by police.
When the New York Times wrongly claims
the medical examiner found no damage

to windpipe or neckbones, Eric’s family pay
for a second autopsy. It agrees with the first,
citing clear evidence of haemorrhaging
around the neck indicative of chokehold.

The NYPD call the word chokehold political,
opt for legal takedown move instead.
They defend not using CPR as the suspect was
still breathing on his own, hold him responsible –

If he hadn’t had asthma, a heart condition
and been so obese, he wouldn’t have died.

Al Sharpton speaks at Eric’s funeral in Bethel
Baptist Church, Brooklyn, condemning chokeholds.
He organises a protest in Staten Island and
a march of over 2,500 down Bay Street.

On 19th August the District Attorney decides
Pantaleo must appear before a Grand Jury.
Under New York law proceedings are secret
and even the family are not allowed access.

On 29th September the grand jury begins
hearing evidence. On 21st November
Pantaleo is called, testifies for two hours.
The family file a wrongful death lawsuit.

After two months of deliberation, the verdict,
on 3rd December is not to indite Pantaleo.
13th July 2015, Eric’s family accept an out-
of-court settlement of 5.9 million dollars.


In New York City and San Francisco
protesters demonstrate with several ‘die-ins’.
Thousands protest in Boston, Chicago

Washington DC, Baltimore, Minneapolis,
Berkeley and Atlanta. Counter-protesters
carry signs saying Bluelivesmatter.

New York’s mayor call Eric’s death
a terrible tragedy, but doesn’t fire
the officers responsible. Cuomo, New York’s

governor, speaking of police brutality,
confirms on TV – We have a problem.
Let’s acknowledge it. Obama states

that Garner’s death and the legal outcome
is an American problem. George W. Bush
finds the grand jury verdict hard to understand.


Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter, leads
fortnightly protests in Bay Street

until she dies in December 2017
from a heart attack aged 27.

Five years after the killing, Pantaleo
and D’Amico face a disciplinary hearing.

D’Amico admits falsifying evidence, claiming
Garner had been selling 10,000 cigarettes

when less than a hundred had been found.
After the hearing the judge recommends

Pantaleo be fired after overwhelming evidence
he had used a chokehold, gross deviation from

conduct established for an NYC police officer.
19th August 2019 his employment was terminated.

On 8th June 2020, the New York state assembly passes
the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act. Any police officer

who injures or kills using a chokehold can be charged
with felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.


Before he became too ill, Eric worked
for New York City parks as a horticulturist.
I like to think of him harvesting seeds,
nurturing young plants, cultivating trees.

There’s a photo of him smiling, holding
a bottle for his youngest daughter,
so tiny she fits into his palm; just
three months old when he died.

I think of Esaw, his wife of 26 years,
six years on playing herself in the film
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story,
positing events if the case had been tried;

of Erica’s two boys, the youngest named
for his grandfather, a four-month-old
and his brother left motherless,
no grandad to play Santa Claus;

of Emerald, his daughter, fighting
for police to be held accountable by law,
using the anger of having to watch
her father die repeatedly on national TV;

of Gwen Carr, his mother, who retired
to devote her life to Civil Rights, sharing
platforms with Al Sharpton, campaigning
for police reform and Black Lives Matter.

This Stops Today said Gwen in 2018.
Only it didn’t and to our shame it hasn’t.

Read 805 times Last modified on Thursday, 25 March 2021 11:19
Annie Wright

Annie Wright is a founding member of Vane Women, the writing, performing and publishing collective based in northeast England. She runs poetry workshops in southwest Scotland and edits for several presses including Vane Women Press.

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