On July 17, 2014, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner died on Staten Island, N.Y., after police officers threw him to the ground and put him in a choke hold. Garner’s last words, as recorded on a cellphone video, were: “I can’t breathe.” He repeated the phrase 11 times.
Although the coroner’s report listed the cause of Garner’s death as “homicide,” no police officer has been charged in the case. But the video of Garner’s last moments helped bring national attention to the injustice black Americans face at the hands of police.
“That tape had a huge impact on everything,” says journalist Matt Taibbi. “It’s opened the eyes — particularly of white Americans, who may not have believed that this kind of thing goes on.”
In his new book, I Can’t Breathe, Taibbi writes about Garner’s life, the police practices that contributed to his death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Taibbi, who is white, initially wondered whether he was the right person to tell Garner’s story. But as he dove deeper into the root causes of Garner’s death, he began to feel differently.
“I think it’s important for white reporters, ultimately, to own some of the responsibility for telling these stories, because it’s our story, too, in a kind of terrible way,” Taibbi says. “The reality is that Eric Garner died at the hands of a police force and a criminal justice system that were designed entirely by white people, for the most part.”
Photo: Demonstrators in Miami stand with tape reading, “ I Can’t Breathe,” in 2014. The protest occurred after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict the police officers involved Eric Garner’s death.Joe Raedle/Getty Images