On August 1, two weeks after the chokehold death by police of 43-year-old Eric Garner during his arrest on charges of illegally selling loose cigarettes, the New York City medical examiner’s office determined that the death was caused from “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” They ruled it a homicide. The plainclothes officer who applied the chokehold was stripped of his gun and badge pending a criminal investigation by the Staten Island district attorney’s office, another was taken off patrol duty, and two paramedics and two EMS workers were also suspended without pay. At a Harlem rally, the autopsy report was cited as clear reason for prosecutors to take further action against the officer involved.
But with the arrest of 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, the bystander who captured video of the fatal chokehold, the death of Garner has now produced another important conversation beyond the issue of police brutality. Coming just one day after the autopsy report, Orta’s arrest has reignited the concern many have about the targeting by police of people involved in documenting and exposing their abuses, and the relation of such to the intimidation of people and movements advocating, or that would advocate, for social justice.
According to Orta’s mother Emily Mercado, police had been following her son ever since the video’s release. “They’ve been sitting in front of my house. They put spot lights in my window,” she told the media. Orta maintains that his arrest, based on police allegations that he passed a handgun later found in the possession of a 17-year old girl, was a set up. His wife, Chrissie Ortiz, believes the same, explaining to media, “The day after they declare it a homicide, you find someone next to him with a gun, and you saw him pass it off? Out in public when he knows he’s in the public spotlight? It makes no sense.” Though Ortiz could not comment on her own arrest a few days later for an alleged assault, in a TV interview she suggested it was also part of the “domino effect” caused by her husband’s footage.
Of course, due to Orta’s lengthy police record, which includes 26 prior arrests, many won’t give credibility to his claims of being followed by police, let alone look deeper into the real issue of the harassment of police brutality, and other, activists. Nevertheless, i find it important to make this connection. As a student of Puerto Rican history, i understand how political intimidation, imprisonment, and even murder, can severely affect a people’s willingness to commit themselves to social justice and other forms of necessary activism.
What Emily Mercado describes reminds me of the 24-hour surveillance of the home of Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos. The claim of Ramsey Orta makes me think of Carlos Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado, two young independence activists set up by undercover police and killed in 1978. Whenever the Puerto Rican independence movement has come under attack by police and repressive forces, it is generally accepted to be part of a larger program of intimidating others from taking, or continuing to take part in struggle.
The UN Special Committee on Decolonization itself recently noted “the concern of the people of Puerto Rico regarding violent actions, including repression and intimidation, against Puerto Rican independence fighters.”
If the public becomes fearful of documenting and/ or exposing police brutality, knowing the harassment Orta and his family claims to have faced prior to his allegedly trumped-up arrest, we lose a key source in the monitoring of police activity. It is community residents (especially Black, Puerto Rican, and other people of color who are the primary targets of abuse) who are on the front lines of police relations, and if they fear retaliation by police, they will hesitate to act or even speak out against their abuses. This is an important concern because it would restrict the possibility of such necessary discussions as are taking place after the release of Orta’s video, and limit any real possibility of social change. As a result, such atrocious abuses would continue with even greater impunity.
And to be clear, we should be critical of Orta’s alleged police harassment despite his record the same way we are critical of Garner’s death despite his more than 30 arrests, as well as having refused to cooperate with officers. Abuse or injustice is still such regardless who the victim is. Furthermore, police have an added obligation to treat people humanely and fairly.
Of course, many will continue to display courage in the interest of resisting injustice, and sacrifice in the face of what consequences might result. In fact, many will be moved to action by such violence and intimidation. Hopefully we can all develop a similarly strong commitment, because without such, a life of peace with justice cannot be guaranteed.