I Can't Breathe

A Killing on Bay Street

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A work of riveting literary journalism that explores the roots and repercussions of the infamous killing of Eric Garner by the New York City police—from the bestselling author of The Divide

NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST

On July 17, 2014, a forty-three-year-old black man named Eric Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk after a police officer put him in what has been described as an illegal chokehold during an arrest for selling bootleg cigarettes. The final moments of Garner’s life were captured on video and seen by millions. His agonized last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the nascent Black Lives Matter protest movement. A grand jury ultimately declined to indict the officer who wrestled Garner to the pavement.
 
Matt Taibbi’s deeply reported retelling of these events liberates Eric Garner from the abstractions of newspaper accounts and lets us see the man in full—with all his flaws and contradictions intact. A husband and father with a complicated personal history, Garner was neither villain nor victim, but a fiercely proud individual determined to do the best he could for his family, bedeviled by bad luck, and ultimately subdued by forces beyond his control. 
 
In America, no miscarriage of justice exists in isolation, of course, and in I Can’t Breathe Taibbi also examines the conditions that made this tragedy possible. Featuring vivid vignettes of life on the street and inside our Kafkaesque court system, Taibbi’s kaleidoscopic account illuminates issues around policing, mass incarceration, the underground economy, and racial disparity in law enforcement. No one emerges unsullied, from the conservative district attorney who half-heartedly prosecutes the case to the progressive mayor caught between the demands of outraged activists and the foot-dragging of recalcitrant police officials. 
 
A masterly narrative of urban America and a scathing indictment of the perverse incentives built into our penal system, I Can’t Breathe drills down into the particulars of one case to confront us with the human cost of our broken approach to dispensing criminal justice.

“Brilliant . . . Taibbi is unsparing is his excoriation of the system, police, and courts. . . . This is a necessary and riveting work.”—Booklist (starred review)

Under the Cover

An excerpt from I Can't Breathe

One Ibrahim

Bang bang bang!

At about 2:45 p.m. on April 2, 2014, on a drizzly afternoon in Staten Island, New York, an aspiring music producer in his late thirties named Ibrahim Annan was sitting in his car when a noise outside startled him.

“Open the fucking window!”

Tall and slender, with a slim mustache, Annan, known as Brian or B or Bizzy B to his friends, was the son of two devout Muslim Ghanaian immigrants. On this afternoon, he was parked on private property, a muddy driveway in front of a friend’s apartment building. The noise came from the driver’s side of his spiffily maintained 2011 Toyota Camry.

Annan looked up and saw a white man with a hoodie obscuring most of his face, rapping on the window.

Bang bang bang!

“Open the fucking window before I break your fucking arm!”

Annan looked past his dashboard and saw another figure standing at about ten o’clock, also dressed in street clothes. This one was aiming a gun at him.

Annan froze. He was a regular visitor to this address, 100 Pierce Street, on the northern side of the island. It’s a dull three-­story apartment building, nestled in a sleepy mixed-­race neighborhood of run-­down one-­family homes. He had a key to an apartment there belonging to his friend, a local DJ known as Icebox International. The two sometimes mixed music inside. He would later say he was there that day to visit his friend on the way back from the post office.

The police version of this story is different. They say Ibrahim Annan pulled into the parking spot and immediately began ostentatiously playing around in his front seat with a giant baggie of weed, which they would describe in a criminal complaint as a “ziplock bag of marihuana.”

This “ziplock bag” in the complaint was described as being “open to public view.” By unsurprising coincidence, New York City police are not supposed to arrest people for marijuana possession unless the subject is “publicly displaying” the drug. If you’re carrying it or even smoking it in private, it’s just a ticket. But at the time, tens of thousands of New Yorkers were criminally arrested for pot possession every year, which either pointed to an epidemic of exhibitionist drug use or a lot of iffy police reports.

Bang bang bang!

“OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR!”

A dependable rule of thumb in police brutality cases is that the worst incidents are triggered by something the suspect says. A lot of these episodes are already running hot before they fully erupt. They often start with the police tackling someone, putting a knee in his or her back, hurling obscenities (to be fair, sometimes in retaliation for obscenities thrown at them). So it doesn’t take much to raise the collective temperature beyond the bursting point. An F-­bomb or two will usually do it.

Annan yelled back: “Get a fucking warrant!”

Boom! The inside of Annan’s car exploded with glass as the officer in the hoodie used something—­a nightstick maybe?—­to shatter the driver’s-side window. At the hospital later on, Annan would have glass fragments removed from his eyes.

Annan turned his face to the right to avoid the impact. But when he opened his eyes, he was immediately struck on the left side of his face with what he thought was an ASP, a kind of telescoping metal baton used by police all over the country.

Another policeman had opened the passenger-­side door and was also striking him repeatedly with something. He heard the impact of steel on his skull before he felt it.

Meanwhile the original officer in the hoodie was yanking at his seat belt. The Toyota dealership would later have to replace the seat belt lock, which is designed to withstand car accidents. It was broken and ripped loose in the struggle.

After more than twenty blows to his face and head, Annan was pulled from the car and thrown to the ground. A police cruiser had driven up beside his car, and he was now facedown in the mud and glass, obscured in a narrow spot between two vehicles. Annan says he screamed for bystanders behind the cars to reach for their cellphones.

“Film them!” he screamed. “Film them!”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Film them!”

Hands pulled behind his back, Annan felt a set of cuffs go on. Officers were raining blows down on him from all angles. He detected a strange sensation in his left leg and tried to protest.

“Yo, hey, the ankle cuff is too tight!” he gasped.

“What are you talking about?”

“The cuff on my ankle! It’s too tight!”

In fact, there was no cuff on his ankle. Annan’s left leg had been stomped on repeatedly, broken in three places, the damage so severe he would still be walking with a cane more than a year later.

Annan tried to focus. He looked down at the mud in front of him. The blows were coming so furiously that he began to worry that he would die here, in this coffin-­sized space between two cars.

His legs and wrists were throbbing and now he also felt something, a hand maybe, sliding under his neck, preparing maybe for a headlock. In his panic he felt himself losing air and spoke three words destined to become famous in another man’s mouth.

“I can’t breathe,” he said.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m serious. I can’t breathe!”

One of the officers answered him: “You can fucking talk, you can fucking breathe.”

In the ambulance a few minutes after his beating, Annan was beside himself. He looked at his mangled left foot and nodded at the officer.

“Where do you live?” he shouted. “Identify yourself!”

The cop shook his head, then leaned forward and punched Annan in the face.

The EMT in the front of the vehicle said nothing and kept driving.

The borough of Staten Island would later charge Annan seven hundred dollars for the ambulance ride.

Ibrahim Annan was well known to the staff of the Richmond University Medical Center. He and his sister both suffered from sickle cell anemia and had come there regularly for treatment their whole lives.

Now Annan was pushed through the door of the ER on a gurney. He was shouting, hysterically, at the top of his lungs.

“They attacked me and broke my leg! Don’t let them hurt me! Don’t let them hurt me!”

“Shut up,” one of the officers muttered.

Annan’s gurney was moved to a private room. Inside, the hospital staff implored him to keep his mouth shut. He was eventually handcuffed to his bed and then wheeled off to a far corner of the ER.

Much later in the evening, after word of his detention had finally reached his family, Annan’s youngest sister, Mariama, wandered through the emergency room, looking for her brother.

Mariama caught a glimpse of him from afar, his face bloodied and his leg smashed. “I had never seen him like that before,” she said. “It was awful.”

The police wouldn’t let her or anyone else in the family visit him or even learn exactly what had happened, so she had to steal a glance from a distance.

“The incident completely changed the way I think about everything—­the government, the police, everything,” she said later. “I didn’t trust the nurses because they were following the police instructions. I was afraid to leave him there with any of them.”

Annan’s parents also tried to get access to Ibrahim. It took more than a full day and multiple trips back and forth to Staten Island’s infamous 120th Precinct before the two slow-­moving, elderly Africans were finally given a pass to see their son. As immigrants they had a poor instinct for the uglier nuances of American culture and were puzzled by every part of the process.

The deal for the pass had been brokered by Mariama. She pleaded with a desk sergeant at the 120th Precinct, an outpost that had for decades been the subject of horror stories within the island’s nonwhite community, who refer to it darkly as the “One Two Oh.”

On the street in certain parts of Staten Island, people believe the 120 is where they send all the reject cops from other precincts, especially the ones with too many abuse complaints. The precinct jailhouse in particular has a terrible reputation for, among other things, its smell and poor ventilation. Even hardened criminals go the extra mile to try to avoid landing there, even for a night.

Mariama remembers the moment when she got the pass. She was standing in the precinct with her two parents when finally, the desk man shook his head and sighed.

“Okay, I’ll give them a pass,” he said. “But only because they’re fucking old.”

Mariama nearly fainted.

“I was afraid for my parents,” she said later. “They were shocked by the language. These are elderly, proper people. They could have had a heart attack.”

After a bedside arraignment in the hospital, Ibrahim Annan faced a litany of charges: menacing, criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree, obstructing government administration, unlawful possession of marijuana, assault in the second degree, and assault in the third degree, among others.

Annan’s family later hired a tall, sharply dressed African American lawyer named Gregory Watts. He would grumblingly describe the charges of assaulting the police.

“They smashed the guy’s car window, and one of them got a little cut after they beat his ass up,” he said. “That’s the assault.”

The last charge was criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree. The police explanation for that charge is that when they banged on Ibrahim Annan’s car window, the accused responded by holding up a lighter and an aerosol can and shouting at armed police from inside a closed vehicle, “IF YOU OPEN THE WINDOW I’M GOING TO BURN YOU.” The officers used all caps in the complaint. Annan would later claim he never even read that part of the charges. “I said what?” he asked, incredulous.

The long list of charges slapped on Annan were part of an elaborate game police and prosecutors often play with people caught up in “problematic” arrests. A black man with a shattered leg has a virtually automatic argument for certain kinds of federal civil rights lawsuits. But those suits are harder to win when the arrest results in a conviction. So when police beat someone badly enough, the city’s first line of defense is often to go on offense and file a long list of charges, hoping one will stick. Civil lawyers meanwhile will often try to wait until the criminal charges are beaten before they file suit.

It’s a leverage game. If the beating is on the severe side, the victim has the power to take the city for a decent sum of money. But that’s just money, and it comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. The state, meanwhile, has the power to make the losses in this particular poker game very personal. It can put the loser in jail and on the way there can take up years of his or her life in court appearances. As Annan would find out, time is the state’s ultimate trump card.

Annan was in the hospital for more than three weeks. His ankle had to be reconstructed surgically.

When he finally went home, he was mostly immobile. It was spring outside, and he missed seeing the weather turn warm.

Feeling better one day in the beginning of May, however, he decided to get some fresh air. With the aid of a walker, he went outside and headed down toward Bay Street, near the water.

The big man in the doorway saw everything. He knew this part of the island like the back of his hand. Anything in this little crisscrossed city block that looked or felt out of place, he registered instantly.

If you judged this man by his clothes, you missed a lot. He looked a mess from the outside. He’d change T-­shirts every day, but the giant XXL sweatpants were often the same smudged and stained pair from the day before. The big man suffered from sleep apnea and chronic allergies, which left his nose constantly running. A hundred times a day or more, he’d wipe his nose with his fingers, then wipe his fingers on those sweatpants.

Eric Garner’s one recent concession to fashion was a pair of shell-­toe Adidas sneakers, made iconic in New York by Run-­DMC, a band he was crazy for as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. His sneakers were huge—­size 16—­and yet still too small for him, because he also suffered from diabetes and his swollen feet spilled out of his shoes.

Some of his friends on the street called him “Elephant Foot.” But it really wasn’t that funny. The swelling from his illnesses left him in constant pain, which was a problem because his job required him to stand in place, rain or shine, hot summer or biting winter, for as much as ten or twelve hours a day.

His usual place of work was on a little stretch of Bay Street, on Staten Island’s North Shore. He spent most of his time there, circling a small triangular patch of trash-­strewn grass called Tompkinsville Park. The park, which used to be nicknamed Needle Park, contains a dozen or so benches, a big red brick public toilet building long ago locked up by authorities, and a view of New York’s Upper Bay. On most days it’s also home to a collection of dope fiends, drifters, crackheads, and alcoholics. They come here to hang out, get high, drink, argue, and trash-­talk.

Just a hundred yards or so from this crowd, on the water side of the park, sits a new fifty-­seven-­unit condominium complex bearing the absurdly pretentious name “The Pointe at St. George.”

“The Pointe” is part of a major Staten Island renewal project called the Bay Street corridor, an ambitious plan to invest nearly a billion dollars in a string of high-­end residential buildings that would dot the waterfront leading to the Staten Island Ferry. A two-­bedroom unit at the “luxury, full-­service” condo complex sells for half a million dollars or more. A nice starter home for an entry-­level Wall Street hustler, perhaps, who wants a water view at night and doesn’t mind reading the Financial Times on a morning ferry ride to downtown Manhattan.

The condos looked like great investments but for one thing: the view across the street. Needle Park is an old-­school New York street hangout—­not too dangerous, but visually rough around the edges and definitely way too black for anyone who’d spend a half-­million dollars to spell “Point” with an “e.”

When this place was just a straight-­up shooting gallery in the early 2000s, police hardly ever came by. But now that the park was on the edge of a billion-­dollar real estate investment, the police were always coming around, mixing it up with the park’s denizens over one thing or another. Nickel-­and-­dime stuff, mostly, what the police call “quality of life” arrests: drinking from open containers, peeing on the sidewalk, disorderly conduct.

- About the author -

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers Insane Clown President, The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2008 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary.

More from Matt Taibbi

I Can't Breathe

A Killing on Bay Street

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I Can't Breathe

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