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'I Can't Breathe' Shows Us Eric Garner's Life — Not Just His Death

The death of Eric Garner is a good place to start if you want to tell a story about our politically divided country. At least, that's the case Matt Taibbi makes in his new book, and quite successfully. I Can't Breathe, which takes its title from Garner's last words, traces his life from adolescence to his final day.

It was July 17th, 2014. Garner was approached by two NYPD officers for allegedly selling a "loosie" cigarette. (Something he most likely hadn't done, according to Taibbi's reporting — at least, not at that time of day.) A bystander filmed what happened next in a video that went viral: When Garner resisted arrest, Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold and brought him down. Once restrained, Garner remained face down on the sidewalk, surrounded by police who seemed inattentive to his condition. According to the city medical examiner's report, Garner died of compression to the neck from Pantaleo's chokehold, and compression of his chest as police restrained him.

Garner's death sparked national outrage. His life, no longer his own, became a symbol for police misconduct and brutality, systematic racism, and eventually, as Taibbi describes it, "America's pathological desire to avoid equal treatment under the law of its black population." But Taibbi's primary objective in I Can't Breathe is to show us Garner as he lived, a "flesh-and-blood person — interesting, imperfect, funny, ambitious, and alive." So who was he?

Eric Garner was a towering man of mild manner and good street sense, who lived by his own ethical code. He conducted business as a bootleg cigarette salesman on Bay Street, across from Staten Island's drug-infested Tompkinsville Park, selling at a discount to drunks, dopers, and middle-class commuters on their way into Manhattan. Rain or shine, Garner could be found on his Bay Street block, where he sometimes kept the peace by breaking up fights and other altercations — in part to avoid generating too much heat in his place of business.

In many ways, Garner's story is a familiar one: He fell in love and got married too early, still in his teens. His wife, Esaw, already had two kids, throwing Garner into fatherhood — a responsibility that seemed to govern the rest of his life. He turned to drug dealing, first to supplement his income from odd jobs, then full time. He was first arrested for selling crack in the mid-1990s, and from that point on he was in and out of prison on drug charges so often that it became routine. "Garner was no kingpin," writes Taibbi. "He didn't have the stomach for what it would take to get there." So he tried for a cleaner path by selling bootleg cigarettes. Here, he found himself — as he told a friend: "Felony money, misdemeanor time."

But New York City in that period was in the throes of aggressive policing — the broken windows theory, the implementation of stop and frisk policies, and a system called CompStat, where crime statistics were analyzed to produce arrest quotas. CompStat forced police to keep their arrest numbers high, which led to more mistakes made — wrongful harassment, unnecessary arrests, or worse, beatings, homicides, and fatalities.

Taibbi spends many chapters implicating police policies, and particularly these three ideas. They are the reasons, he argues, that Garner came into contact with police that day. And he backs his reasoning up with many horrifying instances of police misconduct and brutality — mostly within Garner's community — pummeling readers over and over; the effect is like being beaten by a storm out at sea, wave after wave.

[Taibbi] backs his reasoning up with many horrifying instances of police misconduct and brutality ... the effect is like being beaten by a storm out at sea, wave after wave.

But where I Can't Breathe becomes most riveting is in the aftermath of Garner's death, as district attorney Dan Donovan fails to get a grand jury to indict Officer Pantaleo. Donovan passes up justice for Garner to preserve his own political ambitions, while civil rights groups struggle to get a judge to disclose that grand jury's minutes so they can find out what went wrong.

By now these injustices are part of the fabric of our history. Taibbi isn't trying to win over any skeptics about Garner's case. He's a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, and his style is a distant cousin to the gonzo tradition of that publication. He's not afraid to make a character he deems villainous look buffoonish — like Donovan, who has "a long neck ending in a small blond head, like a yellow lollipop." Does Taibbi's style undermine his reporting? Slightly. But the legwork he's done, and hours he put into documenting Garner's home base, talking with his family and friends, and capturing the people of Tompkinsville Park make all the difference.

Taibbi treats the people on Garner's side with much more compassion — particularly his daughter, Erica, who is relentless in her pursuit of justice for her father. Like Erica, Garner's family and friends speak of him honestly, testify to his decent nature, his limited choices, his bad decisions, and what was taken from him.

By the end, Garner's portrait is fully alive and breathing. But as I Can't Breathe grimly reminds us, the forces that killed him are equally alive, and as powerful as ever.

Alex Gilvarry is an assistant professor of creative writing at Monmouth University. His most recent novel, Eastman Was Here, was published in August.

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Alex Gilvarry