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New Drug Angle in Eric Garner Case

Bill Weinberg

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The case of Eric Garner—the Staten Island man killed in a police chokehold in July 2014 as he gasped “I can’t breathe!,” helping to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement—continues to make headlines in New York City.

The latest: As reported in the Daily News Oct. 3, Ramsey Orta, the man who shot video footage of Garner’s final moments, has been sentenced to four years in prison on drug charges.

Since filming NYPD cop Daniel Pantaleo place Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014, Orta has had several run-ins with the law—which his supporters say is police retaliation. Orta said in July he was “tired of fighting” and would plead guilty to sale of a controlled substance and criminal possession of a weapon.

In an earlier  video interview aired by the News, Orta complained that the grand jury called in the Garner case failed to bring back charges against Pantaleo despite viewing his video footage. And now he is the one going to prison—possibly as retribution for bringing evidence against Pantaleo.

The reading of the sentence was apparently a dramatic moment. As officers placed Orta in handcuffs, protesters stood up in the courtroom, holding their fists in the air and chanting, “No justice, no peace! Fuck these racist police!”

“Ramsey filmed Eric’s last words, and that’s how my child will hear his voice,” said Jewel Miller, the mother of Eric Garner’s youngest child, who attended the sentencing. “Ramsey Orta is a young boy. He’s just getting into adulthood. He’s just becoming a man and it’s really sad.”

Authorities charged charged Orta with having sold heroin, crack, cannabis and oxycodone to an undercover officer. He was also busted with a handgun, bringing an additional charge.

As for Pantaleo, he is still on the beat. The Daily News reported back in April that Pantaleo was disciplined by the NYPD—but not for his role in Garner’s death. Pantaleo, still waiting to find out if he’ll face federal civil rights charges in the Garner case, was docked two vacation days for a bogus stop-and-frisk. The NYPD found he was guilty of conducting an unnecessary frisk, although cleared him of charges that the stop was unjustified.

And Politico New York now reports that Pantaleo—despite being placed on modified duty following Garner’s death—increased his overtime pay last year by 35 percent, earning nearly $120,000 in total over the last fiscal year.

Now, heroin and crack are definitely dangerous substances—whether or not Orta was really guilty of selling them. Arguably, their illegal status just makes them more dangerous and ubiquitous—driving up their price, with the trade in these substances filling the economic vacuum in urban (and rural) areas hit hard by the flight of legal jobs.

In the national protests over the ongoing police brutality outrages, demonstrators have started to make larger political connections—for instance, protests have linked the Eric Garner case to the apparent police massacre of college students at Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The UN human rights commissioner has also made note of the Garner case, and a UN panel recently called on the US to make reparations for ongoing “racial terrorism” against African Americans. It is increasingly inescapable that the country faces a human rights crisis of international proportions.

It would be a big step forward if the Black Lives Matter protesters would explicitly recognize the “war on drugs” as an integral part of the matrix of oppression. And, conversely, if cannabis legalization advocates would recognize that their issue is not only one of individual liberties—but linked to larger questions of human rights and racial justice.

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