If Eric Garner Had Died at the Border, Americans Would Be Outraged, Says Civil Rights Activist After No Charges Against Police Officer

Just a day before the fifth anniversary of Eric Garner's death, the Justice Department declined to file federal civil rights charges against the NYPD officer accused of having put him in a chokehold as he uttered his final words: "I can't breathe" on July 17, 2014.

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to arrest him for selling cigarettes illegally on Staten Island on July 17, 2014.

Video of the incident showed Garner, who was black, repeating the words "I can't breathe" 11 times as Pantaleo, a white officer, forced him down to the ground in an apparent chokehold.

While Garner's death was ruled a homicide by the investigating medical examiner, the most severe punishment Pantaleo could face over the incident is the loss of his job.

The NYPD officer was taken off active duty following the 2014 incident, but has remained on the police department's payroll ever since.

The Justice Department's decision not to press charges came just before the expiration of the statute of limitations on the case could be reached.

In an interview with Newsweek, New York civil rights activist Hawk Newsome said he believed that pressure from supporters of Garner's family had forced the DoJ to reveal its decision this week, instead of simply waiting for the statute of limitations to run out.

"We called them out and forced them to respond," Newsome said. "They had made up their mind and just kept the family in the dark in a real cowardly way...They were just going to let the statute of limitations expire."

Instead, he said, Garner's mother Gwen Carr attended a meeting to hear the Justice Department's decision and "walked out disappointed."

But while Newsome said he was left angry and frustrated by the DoJ's decision not to press charges, he said he was not surprised by the ruling.

"This is the justice system in America and that's spelled with three 'Ks'–KKK. If you don't have power in this country, then you don't get justice, right?" Newsome said.

"Right now, black people don't have enough political power because all the politicians that are supposed to be taking care of us, all they care about right now is what's happening at the border," he said, pointing to the national focus on the situation unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"If Eric Garner's case were to happen at the border every politician would have been rallying for him. But, because he's a black man and this isn't the victim base they want to talk to, they left it alone."

If politicians like Vermont Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were to draw attention to cases like Garner's he said, he believed that perhaps there might be some "justice" for the 43-year-old father's family.

"He was murdered by that cop, but no one will stand up and make sure that his mother will get justice," he said.

For Newsome, after a Staten Island grand jury also chose not to indict Pantaleo on any state criminal charges in the months after Garner's death, only one final possibility of some justice for Garner's mother and other family members remains.

"New York City's mayor had better fire that cop," he said. "That is the only kind of justice she can get. That's the only kind of justice she can hope for."

Eric Garner memorial
A memorial to Eric Garner outside film director Spike Lee's studio in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The Justice Department has declined to file federal civil rights charges against the NYPD officer involved in his death. Epics/Getty