Author Matt Taibbi argues bad policies, not bad cops, at heart of matter

Eric Garner, the man whose death helped give rise to Black Lives Matter, profiled in I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.

The death of Eric Garner inspired Matt Taibbi's new book, I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.


The death of Eric Garner inspired Matt Taibbi's new book, I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street.

In August 2014, a month after video surfaced of Eric Garner’s motionless body lying face down on a Staten Island sidewalk after being pressed into a chokehold by a New York City police officer, thousands of people took to the streets protesting, in what would become a tipping point for the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. Many carried signs that said, “I can’t breathe,” a chilling reference to Garner’s last words.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi hadn’t watched the video in its entirety at that point. He purposely waited until he was well into writing his new book, I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, and needed to describe the scene that unfurled when Garner was once again stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes.

“I was pretty shaken because by that point I felt like I had gotten to know him a little bit better, and it was just that much more horrifying,” Taibbi says.

Taibbi didn’t intend on writing an in-depth profile when he attended the grand jury decision in December 2014 that cleared NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo of any criminal wrongdoing in Garner’s death. But the bestselling author realized there was more to the formidable 43-year-old father of six than what had previously been reported.

“He was a contradictory, interesting figure and that’s really what attracted me to this story,” says Taibbi. “This person, going through a whole lot, who had all these things swirling all around him, and the police just happened to be one of many stressors in his life. I thought that it would be easier for people to understand the cruelty and stupidity of the policing system if they could see that.”

Taibbi immersed himself in the personal side of the story like he hadn’t before in previous books. He spent day after day gaining trust in the Tompkinsville Park neighbourhood where Garner was a fixture, described by many there as a sometimes humorous, larger-than-life man who could be violent, but was also a peacemaker. In fact, minutes before the police approached him for selling cigarettes that fateful day, Garner had broken up a fight.

While Garner’s death is associated with other recent police killings, I Can’t Breathe connects a legacy of government policies leading back to the late 1800s, when “black codes” limited the mobility of freed slaves. More recently, the popular broken-window theory — proposing that crime can be deterred by an orderly environment — has led to the enforcement of low-level offences like selling untaxed cigarettes, and a means of pushing lower-income Black residents out of neighbourhoods.

“My worry is that it’s become a thing about bad cops, but it’s far more about bad policy and bad politics,” Taibbi says. “But I think people are coming around to the thinking that it’s more of a systematic thing.”

Taibbi claims that optimism “isn’t really my area of expertise,” but he does acknowledge that citizen videos have at least made Americans more aware of what’s happening on their streets. “It’ll be an issue like gay marriage, where one day we’ll wake up, and the country will be ‘Yeah, why is that a problem? Let’s fix this.’ That’s what I hope.”

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