Six Thanksgivings ago was the first that Gwen Carr spent after her son died in a police chokehold near the Staten Island Ferry. Eric Garner‘s death set off the then-nascent Black Lives Matter movement as viral footage of his final gasps of “I can’t breathe” sent tens of thousands to the streets chanting those words.
“I hope this fight would be over next Thanksgiving,” Carr told Law&Crime in a Zoom interview the day before the 2020 holiday. “I hope I have some closure by next Thanksgiving. But even with all of that, that’s not going to take away from the fact that my son won’t be at the table this Thanksgiving or no Thanksgiving going forward. But it’s just a sense of closure and about the [New York City Police] Department doing the right thing—and being about doing right when these heinous crimes take place.”
WATCH the interview in the player above.
Since Garner’s last breath on July 17, 2014, Carr has seen few but important victories in her various legal battles.
Things got off to a bleak start for Garner’s family later that year on Dec. 4, 2014, when a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, despite city medical examiners ruling Garner’s death a homicide. That declination decision galvanized the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement and presaged Carr’s life in activism.
Retiring from her job as a train operator in 2015, Carr started a life in activism. Her family’s civil lawsuit reached a $5.9 million settlement, but criminal prosecution proved elusive.
“They should stand accountable for their wrongdoings,” Carr said of the officers.
All that came—half a decade later—was a single disciplinary hearing for one of the officers: Pantaleo, who was fired following an administrative trial in 2019.
Attorney General Bill Barr closed the books on the Department of Justice investigation that declined to bring federal civil rights charges that same year, but that did not end Carr’s quest for justice.
Backed by civil rights groups, Carr filed a petition in Manhattan Supreme Court seeking to open a judicial inquiry that would serve as a fact-finding mission for the six-year-old incident—and recently won.
“There is no area of local government where public accountability is more necessary than policing, especially when police conduct results in the loss of life,” the Garner family’s attorney, Gideon Oliver, wrote in a 25-page petition in August 2019.
“Yet, there has been scant information released by the city about Mr. Garner’s death,” the petition states. “For example, the city has not even identified all of the NYPD officers present at the scene. Further, the public has been made aware of only one disciplinary proceeding: Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold led to Mr. Garner’s death, had a semi-public administrative hearing that failed to address several unanswered questions and, indeed, raised even more questions.”
That effort turned a corner with Justice Joan Madden’s ruling moving the inquiry forward.
“Although the arrest and death of Eric Garner has received considerable attention in the press over the past six years, many facts relating to his arrest and death, and the investigations and any disciplinary actions taken in response to his death, have not been disclosed to the public or to the family of Mr. Garner,” Madden wrote in the ruling advancing the inquiry.
With the city vowing to appeal, the judge-ordered inquiry has been in limbo, and Carr’s counsel returned to court recently seeking an order to begin discovery.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration requested a stay of the order.
“I felt a little bit victorious because the administration was going to just say, ‘Oh, it’s all said and done,'” Carr said, rejecting their premature sense of victory. “I was going to still fight, fight tooth and nail to make sure that I uncover every stone that I could to try to get those other officers to stand accountable for their wrongdoings that day. So, I felt good because it could have gotten thrown out at that point, but it didn’t. So, we know that there is validity in what I’m doing.”
Carr wants the mayor’s top officials and police officers to testify about their decisions on the witness stand.
“It took five years to fire one police officer,” Carr said. “It was a step in the right direction but not enough. We need more. We need the other officers who was involved in my son’s death that day to stand to count.”
The slow arc of justice and many setbacks have not discouraged Carr, who sees victory in her longtime fight.
“I just feel confident because if I’ve come this far and I’ve won a few of the battles,” she said. “I’m confident that I’m going to win the war.”
[image via screen capture/Law&Crime]
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