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On Contact: The killing of Eric Garner with Matt Taibbi

Chris Hedges talks to journalist Matt Taibbi about the police killing of Eric Garner, the criminalization of poverty, and institutional racism. Taibbi authored the 2017 book ‘I can’t breathe – A Killing on Bay Street.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the killing of Eric Garner and institutionalized racism with author Matt Taibbi.

MT: Trump really played on a lot of these emotions that people have in Middle America about those people who live in those neighborhoods and they're moving into our neighborhoods, and these cases become part of that tapestry.  I mean, I think there's--we're a segregated country and these incidents that almost always happen on the borders between white and black neighborhoods, a lot of them were about whether or not we really want to live together.  And I think this case really--it struck home the fact that we're still very divided. 

CH: On July 17th, 2014, a 43-year-old Black man named Eric Garner was killed in New York City after police put him in an illegal chokehold during an arrest for ostensibly selling bootleg cigarettes.  His final words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.  But it was not only a rogue police officer who was eventually fired, responsible for the death of Garner, but a system that has in essence criminalized poverty.  Matt Taibbi, in his book "I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street" has used the story of Garner's life and death to peel back the many layers of institutionalized racism used to keep the poor poor.  Including the impoverished, internal colonies in urban areas that were artificially created by a series of criminal real estate scams, the court-sanctioned racial profiling where 90% to 95% of all people in prison for drug offenses in New York are Black and Hispanic, while 72% of all illegal drug users in the city are White.  The inability of the poor to find work in the formal economy with de-industrialization and the transformation of police in poor neighborhoods into heavily-armed, predatory forces that harass, arrest, and kill with impunity often for minor offenses.  Joining me in the studio to discuss his book is Matt Taibbi.  First of all, I've read I think almost all your books.  And this may be your best.

MT: Well, thank you, Chris.

CH: And I think it's extremely important.  And as a reporter, I know how hard it was to do both in terms of its reporting and its writing.  Because you take the story of Garner and you use it to explain not only how we maintain social control brutally in what Malcolm X called our "internal colonies."  But ultimately, and of course, the way the judicial system functions as one of the primary mechanisms of institutionalized racism.  But ultimately, at the end of the book, to talk about us as a country.  It's really a brilliant, brilliant book.  And I can't recommend it enough.  Let's begin at the beginning.  Just briefly to explain what happened to Eric Garner, who he was.

MT: Eric Garner was a 43-year-old father of five who…

CH: And let me just interject, according to the book, a very devoted father.

MT: Oh, yes.  Yeah.  Very.  His kids were really his whole life.  And there's a--there's a complex story there because as he got older, he had gone to prison for dealing crack.  He had a lot of, kind of, failures and disappointments in his life.  And as he got older and a lot of those experience weighed on him very heavily, being there for his kids became a more important part of his life.  So by the time this incident happened, he was really working round the clock.  And most all of his money went to his kids.  In fact, he was--he was legendary on the street for spending some--all of his money on his kids and not buying himself anything.

CH: Well, you say he was very slovenly, he was apparently wearing, like, soiled gray sweatpants and shoes that were falling apart.

MT: His shoes literally split in half, his pants were shredded.  You know, his girlfriend would implore him to buy new clothes and he wouldn't do it.  You know, not to say that he didn't love money, but he had this almost like a phobia about spending on himself, which was a thing that he got picked on for in the street.  But he was--and also, he'd let himself go physically, like, he didn't take care…

CH: He was a large man.

MT: He was a large man.  He was 350 pounds.  He was diabetic, his health was in terrible condition.  And part of it was because he couldn't go to a doctor properly, you know, being an ex-con, didn't have health insurance.  But he, you know, he was selling essentially cigarettes that were bootlegged and…

CH: Explain that business.  How--what happened, courtesy of--was it Michael Bloomberg?

MT: It was--it was Bloomberg and Juliana essentially, they--you know, the--there was a situation where after 9/11, the city--New York City needed a whole lot of money to pay for the cleanup downtown.  And one of the things that came up with was a really, really heavy consumption tax that they were going to apply to everybody who bought packs of cigarettes.  So the--if you buy--you know, if live in the city, you can spend $13, $14 a pack.  And so Garner, there was--this whole new cottage industry flourished where people--what they were doing is they were driving to either Native American reservations or just, you know, states like Virginia, buying them for $5 or $6 a pack, or cartons, drive them back to the city, splitting the difference, and then you--it was a pretty good little business.  It wasn't--you know, it was a way for people to make money on the street without dealing drugs.  And Garner, who had a record for dealing crack, didn't want to go back into that game.  Although he tried.  And he ended up doing this, and he was good at it.  He had employees, he had a little store going on there in the street.  And the problem was because this kind of community policing, which is really aimed to cleaning up the streets…

CH: I'll explain.  This is the theory of broken windows dreamt up by some academic where it was a--in the University of Illinois or somewhere, right?

MT: Yeah, exactly.  And it was--it was a theory that was adopted here in New York City primarily first.

CH: Well, all throughout the country.

MT: All throughout the country.  But this was really the crucible where they test it.  And the idea is that if you--if you go after minor offenders and if you--and you got the visible signs of crime with, like, jumping turnstiles, graffiti on the walls, then people won't commit more serious forms of crime.  If they know they're going to be picked up for something small, they're less likely to do something serious and/or bring a gun on the street.  That's the theory, right?

CH: But you can only dream that up in a university.  Because once it--it's practical application hits the streets, as you point out in the book, it's just essentially continuum.  It fits seamlessly going all the way to the black codes and everything else.  So what was the difference between the theory and the reality of it when it was put in practice?

MT: Well, I think the theory actually made a little bit of sense.  I mean, you can definitely make an argument that there are two different kinds of rules that go on in society.  There's the law, things that are against the law, and then there's something that's more efficient and definite, which we call order, right?  You don't throw garbage on the street, it's not against the law necessarily to do that in places.  You know, you don't drink out of an open container, you know, those things.  But are you going to give the police license to actually arrest you for doing those things?  And what these researchers thought they discovered was that in places where police went after these smaller forms of disorder, that people felt safer, right?  They weren't necessarily safer, but if--when they pulled people in those neighborhoods, they did feel safer if they saw police going after those sorts of things.  So that was a theory.  They did this in a lot of different cities.  They did it in Newark, they did it in Kansas City, they did it here in New York.  And the idea was to go after minor offenders.  And Garner fit into this perfectly because he was the most minor kind of offender.  I mean, selling untaxed cigarettes was not even a misdemeanor, it's a ticket in New York City.  And also, he couldn't run.  He was--he was completely immobile.  When the police went after him, he wasn't going to take off around the corner or fight.  So he got ticketed and arrested constantly.  And then one day, he decided that he wasn't going to be ticketed anymore.

CH: Well, let's go back.  Because as you chronicle in the book, it's really constant harassment, where they're stopping him when he is in the car, and his--at one point, leaves his wife, and that's like--I think it's his girlfriend.  He's driving and they go after him.  And he is paying very large fines or, you know, thousands of dollars they're sucking out of him.

MT: Not even--that's a--that's the real finds, because they--in addition, they just take whatever money you have with you--yeah.

CH: Yes, that's right.  They would take the money in his pocket.

MT: Yeah.  Here's another thing that people don't realize that happens in the street all the time, which is police will stop you, they'll search you.  And these stop-and-frisk rules, these community policing rules that give police the power to kind of go after--stop you for--without probable cause, real probable cause.  You know, they search you.  And if they find you got a roll of money on your--on your person, they can say to you, "Look, we're going to take this.  If you got it legally, you can come to the station, show us a receipt, and you can get it back."  Right?  But, you know [INDISTINCT]

CH: Well, one point I think is go and try to show her pay stubs.

MT: Yeah, yeah.

CH: It doesn't work.

MT: It doesn't work.  Yeah, exactly.  And so this was happening to him constantly.  They knew him, they, you know, they knew his car.  They stopped him on the way to the Laundromat.  They stopped him on the way to his spot in the street.  And this was going on over and over and over again.  And, look, you know, a thousand dollars to this person, that was a lot of money.  I mean, it made a huge difference and he kept getting beat and--by the police for this--for these sums of money.  And he was getting robbed on the street, too.  That's another thing that was happening.  So the--all this was accumulating.  The constant stops, the constant having his money taken, having to pay higher bail, having to pay fines, having to do little bits in jail.  It just accumulated to the point where--and he was a very passive person.  He actually, throughout his life, had gone along when police had told him to do things.  He was…

CH: But--and the--and the--as you're writing the book, the day he's killed, he actually was in the park breaking up a fight.

MT: Yeah--oh, yeah, that was part of his role in this little place, Tompkinsville Park in Staten Island.  It's a little tiny, tiny corner of grass in the--in the borough there.  And Garner was a big guy.  And part of his role in that--in that little outdoor store where drugs, and alcohol, and cigarettes are sold is that he broke up fights.  He kept order.  He was a big dude, people were a little afraid of him.  And he broke up a fight that day.  And he wasn't--he wasn't selling cigarettes.  There was a lot of stuff going on that day.

CH: Yeah, that's the only thing, yeah.

MT: And it persisted in the news that if you see any news story about it, you'll see Garner who is arrested for selling cigarettes, but he actually wasn't that day.  That's part of the tragedy of the whole thing, is that--and so when stopped him, and if I have a moment to get into why they stopped him, the reason he was stopped is because the--a lieutenant on the way to the precinct that morning saw him driving.  And they saw him standing in the corner.  And the whole idea is Garner was slovenly and he wanted to clear the corner.  So he tells a couple of plainclothes guys to go back and pick them up.  But they never saw him committing a crime.  And it was hours later.  So they came back and they told him to get into the car and he hadn't done anything and he had been harassed over and over and over again.  He just ran out of the ability to say yes.

CH: But let me--as you write in the book, he understood the rules.  So that--you say that when he was actually caught selling cigarettes, he accepted it as part of the business.  But as you write, this was outside the rules as bad as they were.

MT: Yeah.  And this was--he had--he would say over and over again to his girlfriend, Julie, he would say, "Look, this is part of the game.  If they--if they stop me and they catch me, you know, I'm not going to--I'm not going to squawk about it."  You know, like, it's essentially a tax that you pay, right?  To stay in business.  It's an informal tax, but everybody understands it.  What upset him was them going outside of the rules of the--sort of unspoken game, stopping him on the streets, stopping him in his car, stopping him and his girlfriend.  And, you know, stopping him when he didn't do anything at all.  And so he felt like he didn't have anywhere to even be, you know.  He didn't know where he could stand in the street legally and…

CH: And part--the sad part is his son had just been accepted on a basketball scholarship.

MT: Yeah.

CH: And he was just ecstatic for his kid.

MT: Uh-hmm.  That was also contributed to why he didn't go with the police that day.  He had just found out that his son had been accepted on a basketball scholarship and was going around showing everybody the letter on the phone.  And in fact, people told me, like, you know, they must've--he must've showed me that a hundred times, now I got tired of it.  And so he was kind of puffed up a little bit when they approached him that day.  And I think good police officers will tell you this.  Like, you have to be able to read what's going on with people when you--when you approach them on the street.  And good officers will know that when somebody's in a certain way, you have to handle them in a certain way or you have to try to negotiate.  And what happened on that faithful day in, you know, in July, I guess it's five years ago now, they, you know, they gave him an ultimatum, he didn't go, and they just went to force straight away.  They jumped on top of him, the Officer Daniel Pantaleo infamously puts him in a--you know, puts an arm around his neck and, you know, he says "I can't breathe" 11 times.

CH: We'll come back to that.

MT: Yeah.

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about Eric Garner and institutionalized racism with author and journalist Matt Taibbi.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about Eric Garner, and institutionalized racism with author Matt Taibbi.  So before the break, we were talking about that moment.  He's in a--Eric's in a chokehold.

MT: Uh-hmm.

ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe.  I can't breathe.

MT: Yeah, and--you know, I--the reason I decided to write the book in the first place is because, first of all, I--when I went out to the street, just out of curiosity after the grand jury decision to not indict the police officer, and I heard all these stories about him.  I thought he was a really--he was a funny guy, I liked his personality.  But I was really struck by the power of the story about a guy who had just been pushed over and over again throughout…

CH: Throughout his whole life.

MT: Throughout his whole life.  I mean, it--beginning from when he was very young, and there--it just came a moment where he literally didn't--there was no place else for him to go.  He--you couldn't back up any further…

CH: I think you talk about how the world just shrunk.

MT: It just got smaller and smaller…

CH: Smaller and smaller, and smaller.

MT: …and smaller, and smaller.  And what's what I was trying to describe in the story is that he was fighting so hard to get a little bit of space for himself.

CH: Yeah.

MT: And it--and ultimately in that moment, he literally had--there was no room left, and he literally ran out of air to breathe.  And that's--I think that's--it was a tremendously affecting and powerful, and devastating moment.  And the fact that it happened in front of all these people, no one--no one jumped in to help him.

CH: Yeah.

MT: You know, I mean, there are other officers standing there.  It's just--you know, I didn't watch the tape until actually I had to write that scene because I didn't want to be thinking about it during--so--and when you--when you go back and look at it now, it's just such an awful thing.  And you just wonder how it could--it could get to that.  But it's a--it's a common thing in this country.

CH: Let's talk about two things.  So, the broken windows policy runs amok.

MT: Uh-hmm.

CH: And it's an emphasis on generating numbers.

MT: Right.

CH: It doesn't really matter what people do.  And, of course, as you point out, this is only in certain neighborhoods, not in others.

MT: Of course.

CH: And as you have written about in Divide and Griftopia, the real criminals on Wall Street…

MT: Sure.

CH: …are who created this social inequality, and are untouched.

MT: Right.  And it becomes a self-perpetuating problem because politically, the benefit of broken windows is a system is that you can quantify how much work you're doing to fight crime.  So what ends up happening is the politicians will go to the police commanders, and say, "I want evidence that you've stopped a hundred thousand people."

CH: Right, right.

MT: Right?  So the police commanders, they have this system they call CompStat.  If you ever watched the movie--the show The Wire, you've seen this.  Essentially, they're bringing the police captains, and they'll either have them in person or you want a video screen.  And the higher ups will say, "I saw you only do 30,000 of these in the last, you know, month.  That number's got to be higher, or else we're going to put somebody else in it."

CH: Right.  And so, they have a right to--or they can have legal cover, and you write about several other cases in here where they grab anyone, on the most amorphous, these are UF-250 forms.

MT: Yeah.

CH: So, inappropriate attire, furtive movement, actions indicative of engaging in violent crimes, suspicious bulge.

MT: Bulge, yeah.

CH: So essentially, you grab anybody.  You talk about the console, you know, everybody, they--they're all--drug--they're always saying that they look through a window of a car, and saw drugs in the console of--you know, between the two front seats.  I mean, it's so much so that it becomes a kind of joke in the courts.  Basically, they grab anyone they want…

MT: Right.

CH: …and think of the reason later.

MT: Yeah, the way the law is written, the officer has to have what they call an articulable suspicion that a crime might be committed soon.  But that just puts the entire thing in the mind of the police officer.  It's a subjective thing.  If you look at a scene…

CH: Right.

MT: …and I it looks wrong to you for any reason, and incidentally, the original court case, part--a whole--a huge element that a US [INDISTINCT] or I'm sorry, a [INDISTINCT] it was about a white man meeting with two black men in the street.  And part of the thing that struck the police officer was--as wrong was that the racial situation was wrong there.  And so, what they're saying is, if you have a--if you're an experienced officer, and there's something about a street situation, it doesn't look right, you can stop them.  You can stop them, and you can put your hands over their clothes and pat them.  And if you find something, you're--you can search them.  And so, this gives you the legal cover, as you say, it's a stop--you know, at the height of the program in New York City, it was 700,000, 800,000 people a year, and as you say, it was almost all in a few neighborhoods, right?  An 85%, 90% of the people that were stopping were black and Hispanic.

CH: Let's talk about what happens afterwards.  So, the video gets out, and I love your portrait of the guy, what's his name, who took the video?

MT: Oh, Ramsey Orta.

CH: Right.

MT: Yeah.  Yeah.

CH: So you can--you can be harassed and still be a scumbag.  Liberals can't get that.  I'm so sorry.

MT: I like--I like Ramsey a lot.

CH: Oh, yeah, I'm sure he's wonderful.

MT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CH: I teach them in prison, they are wonderful.  Okay.  But talk about what happens afterwards?  Because it's a--it's a--it--you know, the--from that point on in the book, it reminds me of Bonfire of the Vanities in reverse.

MT: Right.

CH: Rather told instead of as Wolfe, who was--politics were awful, told from the perspective of white society, is told from the perspective of the people who really get it.  So, explain what happens after that.  So, the video gets out.

MT: Uh-hmm.

CH: It becomes internationally known, and then we watch the machine work.

MT: Yeah.  And this…

CH: And how--and you--and you do a masterful job in explaining how it works.

MT: Yeah, this was fascinating to me because I didn't really know a whole lot about this.  You know, from the outside, what you see is a district attorney in Staten Island, convenes the grand jury, a special grand jury.

CH: Yeah.

MT: Which sounds better than a regular grand jury.  But…

CH: Donovan, is he still in Congress?

MT: Yeah, no, he's out now.  He's out.

CH: Oh, is he out now?

MT: Yeah, yeah.

CH: Probably working for Goldman Sachs.  Okay.

MT: Right.  But they convene a grand jury.  And then, they spend an enormous amount of time going over the case, and then after, you know, months of sitting, and, you know, dozens of witnesses, they come out one day, and they say, you know, "We've decided not to indict this police officer."  Now, to…

CH: Totally should just throw in, and was fired, eventually.

MT: Who was eventually years later fired.

CH: Year--well…

MT: Yeah, yeah.

CH: …a few weeks ago, yeah.

MT: A few weeks ago.  Yeah.  But what I found when I went back is that there were many similar cases to this, and the patterns almost always the same.  You convene a special grand jury, not a regular grand jury, because a regular grand jury doesn't have time.  You know, in New York, they're saying you can--anyone can indict a ham sandwich.  It's true, because a sitting grand jury hears lots of cases a day.  You can't have any felony indictment in this city without the grand jury.  So you would go in, you'd present one or two pieces of evidence, like the film, maybe a witness, and they would say, "Yeah, let's, like, go to the courts.  Let the--them sort it out."  In this case, you go to a jury that has all the time in the world, and what you do is you investigate it to death.

CH: Right.

MT: You bring in all these witnesses, you confuse the situation, probably, ultimately, these are defense witnesses.  You know, you're bringing experts saying, "Is this a head--you know--you know, a chokehold or not?"  We don't know exactly what they did, but we know they had 50 witnesses.  Why do you need 50 witnesses in this case?

CH: Right.

MT: You have a video…

CH: Right.  Right.

MT: …of the crime.

CH: Well, we also, as you point out in the book, Donovan saw this as a springboard to the US Congress, which he took.

MT: Right.  Oh, of course.  You--I mean, I think it was implicit that if this--if this decision came out a certain way, that he was going to have, you know, a route to the--to US Congress, which is…

CH: By--in favor of the police.

MT: In favor of the police.  Right.  And this is where you get to the inherent problem, which is the NWACP argued to, you know, to me, which is that, essentially, the police and prosecutors are--they're partners.  You know, they work together…

CH: Right.

MT: …all the time.  You can't have a situation where the one is investigating the other really, you know, and what happens in this case is they have an easy method, where you just--if you get the right jury, and you--and you bring enough witnesses in, eventually, they're going to be confused, and they're going to come back with a--with a--with a No Bill.  They're not going to bring in a new nightmare.

CH: But at the same time, as you point out, they flip the media narrative.

MT: Uh-hmm.

CH: How do they do that?

MT: Well…

CH: So, originally, there's outrage, even Bill de Blasio, I love that little anecdote about how he kills Chucky the groundhog.

MT: Oh, my God.

CH: Precious.

MT: On Groundhog Day.

CH: You know, we'll do another show on Bill de Blasio.

MT: Yeah.

CH: With the Chevy Chase of mayors, you call him.  But explain how they--and they do it quite effectively.  What happens?

MT: Well, no, the--again, what they're--what they're selling to the public is we're taking this with the utmost serious--we didn't convene a regular grand jury, we convened a special one.  We're--we've--in fact, when the--when the decision came out, Donovan actually went to the courts and asked permission to release details about how thorough his investigation had been.  Otherwise, we wouldn't know that they had 50 witnesses…

CH: Right.

MT: …that they'd spent--they'd examined thousands of exhibits, that they had taken X number of hours.  They got permission, special permission to release that information, and what you see in the newspapers is they took a long time, they went over every last thing.

CH: Right.  Right.

MT: But here, and in Ferguson, there was another case involving a guy named Ernest Sayon in Staten Island, it's always the same pattern.  You have a long grand jury investigation that results in no indictment, and everybody walks away.  And even when it's not that, you find all these other ways that they get police out of this, like, they'll have a bench trial instead of a jury trial.  The judge will, you know, slap the cops in the wrist, let them off with something small.  But you almost never get a situation where something like, you know, manslaughter or…

CH: And at the same time, they've spun the narrative to essentially divert attention away from the crime that was committed by the police, and effectively demonize figures like Garner and his supporters.

MT: Oh, yeah.  Well, that's always part of the narrative like, you know, this person was doing something illegal in the street, if only he had gotten into the car, why didn't he get into the car.  You have to obey the police when they do something wrong.

CH: But they also seize on tangential points that have nothing to do.  I mean, there was that kind of rightwing woman who confronts, Erica, his daughter, who was quite a heroic figure, who died.  So…

MT: Who died, yeah.  It was very tragic.

CH: But the--and get--gets her on video to say something about Sharpton.

MT: Right.

CH: The former FBI informant…

MT: Right.

CH: …that, you know…

MT: Yeah, she said that Sharpton is only about this.

CH: Yeah.  Right.

MT: And that became the--that became a viral video on the--and so, you're always somehow putting the family and victim on trial, this becomes a whole thing in the--and, you know.

CH: And it isolates the movement.  I mean, you end the book quite poignantly with a memorial, and, you know, the--they've sent down this armored personnel carriers, and Erica's there, and the group start fighting amongst each other because--but just in the last two minutes, which you do at the end of the book, you backed way off, and I think you used all of this brilliant reporting to say something about the country.  What do you say?

MT: Well, I think, you know, the--this--I think this case was actually an important sort of stepping stone to the Trump era because…

CH: Yeah.

MT: …what ended up happening was there was--initially, when this first came out, even white Americans were outraged by the case, but as time went on, there was all this backlash, and the--this sort of backlash politics.  We're tired of people picking on the people, we're tired of people--you know, criminals getting away with things.  We're tired of being, you know, told that an officer who was just trying to do his job may does something, you know, a little bit too--goes a little bit too far, but, you know, it's a difficult job, right?  And I think Trump really played on a lot of these emotions that people have in Middle America about those people who live in those neighborhoods, and they're moving into our neighborhoods.  And these cases become part of that tapestry.  I mean, I--and I think there's--we're a segregated country, and these incidents that almost always happen on the borders between white and black neighborhoods, a lot of them are about whether or not we really want to live together.  And I think this case really--it struck home the fact that we're still very divided, and--yeah.

CH: But it's also about how white America, which essentially tacitly embraces this segregation doesn't want to know.

MT: Right.  Oh, we don't want to know, we--and we do embrace it among other things because we're thinking about our property values, right?  I mean, that was a huge part of this case, was--which is that it happened across the street from a huge condominium complex.

CH: Right.  That's right.  That's right.

MT: And he--they would never even bother…

CH: But they left the park alone before.

MT: Right.

CH: But the condos went up.

MT: Yeah.

CH: But as soon as people who could afford condos appeared suddenly, that park became…

MT: Yeah, I mean, a heroin dealer there told me, you know, like, "Hey, look, I would go six months without seeing a cop in this neighborhood."

CH: Yeah.  Right.

MT: But now, they're there all the time.  And that's really what this is about.  Like, what--when white and black collide, and especially, it's--you know, rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, what's their--what's our tolerance for living together?  And that--we use the police to keep ourselves separate.

CH: Right.  Thanks, Matt.

MT: All right.  Thanks.

CH: That was author and journalist, Matt Taibbi, speaking about his book, I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.

MT: Appreciate it.

CH: Thanks, Matt.

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