In 2014, Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island, New York when an officer Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a chokehold while a group of cops tried arresting him on accusations that included impersonation.
Garner’s death immortalized the phrase “I can’t breathe”, words that have become synonymous with the protest against police brutality and institutional anti-black racism in the United States. But the video of the killing of Garner came to the rest of the world thanks to Ramsey Orta.
Indeed, he was the person with Garner on that fateful day. Orta would later say in an interview that Garner had only been in the vicinity by chance and had separated a fight between some people.
“Yeah, the fight had broken out maybe two feet away from us. He [Garner] jumped up and separated them. As soon as he separated them, the cops came out of the car and targeted Eric,” Orta told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now in 2015.
Garner had a history of torment by the police in New York for such things as selling illicit cigarettes, or loosies, as they are called. He was also a man very familiar with the justice system, going in and out of jail about 30 times since 1980.
When he filmed the incident of his friend’s death, Orta believed he was going to be the instrument of justice. But not only did a grand jury say officer Pantaleo was innocent, authorities turned their eye to the man who had shown all the world how a black man was brutalized to death.
“[After news came of Garner’s death] the Daily News got in contact with me and asked me if I had any pictures, and I told them, “I got a video,” and we took it from there. And from then on, I’ve been targeted by NYPD. I got five pending cases right now—two in Supreme Court, three in criminal. Since then, I’ve just been harassed. I’ve been almost killed in Rikers Island,” Orta said.
Orta was sentenced to jail in 2016 for four years on charges of weapons and drug possession. This was after he took the federal prosecutor’s deal so that his mother was also not charged for similar crimes.
On July 11, 2020, Orta will be released from the Groveland Correctional Facility after serving his term.
He will be walking out a free man into times that are not so different from when his friend was killed. In these times too, another black man, George Floyd, was ignored when he begged for his life in the same words, “I can’t breathe”.
Orta has received a first-hand lesson on what it means to reveal the moral corruption in power. It will be interesting to see what he thinks of Black Lives Matter protests that have outgrown the expectations of people when he, Orta, shared the video of Garner’s death in 2014.