I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street

An exploration into the roots and aftermath of the infamous killing of Eric Garner by the police in a work of riveting literary journalism from the bestselling author of The Divide.On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York City, after a police officer put him in what has been described as a “chokehold” during an arrest for selling “loosies,” or single c...

Title:I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street
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I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street Reviews

  • Carol

    died on the streets of Staten Island on July 17, 2014 at the hands of a New York City Police Officer. He was 43 years old, weighed 350 pounds at the time and was in poor health. He was also a known drug dealer. As a big, imposing man, he was intimidating, but for the most part well-liked and harmless. He loved his family, wanted to provide for them, but made poor choices repeatedly spending a considerable amount of time in and out of prison.

    died on the streets of Staten Island on July 17, 2014 at the hands of a New York City Police Officer. He was 43 years old, weighed 350 pounds at the time and was in poor health. He was also a known drug dealer. As a big, imposing man, he was intimidating, but for the most part well-liked and harmless. He loved his family, wanted to provide for them, but made poor choices repeatedly spending a considerable amount of time in and out of prison.

  • Andre

    Although I've read quite a few books dealing with unjustified killings of mostly black men, I'm still shocked at how the systemic racism inherent in the criminal justice system conspires to twice victimize those who are unfortunate enough to get caught up in the system. First by death, and then by the denial of justice.Matt Taibbi takes a look here at the killing of Eric Garner who was basically choked to death and despite the whole world seeing a man saying " I can't breathe" eleven times no on

    Although I've read quite a few books dealing with unjustified killings of mostly black men, I'm still shocked at how the systemic racism inherent in the criminal justice system conspires to twice victimize those who are unfortunate enough to get caught up in the system. First by death, and then by the denial of justice.Matt Taibbi takes a look here at the killing of Eric Garner who was basically choked to death and despite the whole world seeing a man saying " I can't breathe" eleven times no one has been held responsible for his death. What Taibbi does in this book is what the media failed to do in the aftermath of Garner's killing. He humanizes the person that is Eric Garner. He extensively talks to family members, friends, shop owners, customers, other hustlers and constructs for the reader what life for Eric Garner looked like on a daily basis, and how all the forces of his past, plus the politics and the history of policing coalesced that fateful day, July 17, 2014.

    "Garner was caught in the crossfire of a thousand narratives that had little or nothing to do with him personally. Everything from a police commissioner’s mania for statistics to the opportunistic avarice of real estate developers had brought him in contact with police that day."

    He writes with a confident knowing prose and portions of the book have the feel of a novel as he details the area and various characters in and around Staten Island, where Eric Garner spent most of his time. The bureaucracy that keeps bodies moving through the criminal justice system is put under a microscope here and will have readers shaking their heads as to how easily it is to ruin someone's life because no one truly cares about what is going on and why the corruption is allowed to go unabated. Taibbi certainly makes it clear that some lives are valued over others and all the data coming out of the NYC police department, court and jail back this up.

    Pedro Serrano is an officer that decided to tape his superiors and his evidence was used in the lawsuit to end the practice of stop and frisk. Some of his comments and taped conversations are chilling and give excellent insight into how a culture of fear and loathing is created in the average police officer. He was actually told by a deputy inspector to stop young black men.

    “The problem was what?” McCormack said. “Male blacks. And I told you at roll call, I have no problem telling you this, male blacks, fourteen to twenty, twenty-one. I said this at roll call.”

    These kinds of inclusions along with looks at the charging and negotiating of crimes process, the district attorney and defense attorney chess games makes this book hum along. By the books' end you will think of Eric Garner differently and hopefully that difference will forever change how you understand the "system."

    Matt Taibbi started out to write a policy book with the Garner killing as central to talk about how models of policing, like stop and frisk can go horribly wrong and the effects of that. He ended up with a very different book, because when he got to Bay St., in Staten Island, NY and begun talking to people he developed a real liking for Eric, and the focus of the project became flushing out the story of who Eric Garner was. And by altering the course of this book hoped to change the impression of Eric Garner from political symbol to human being who was loved and appreciated by friends and family like. I think readers will be pleased by Taibbi's decision to change current and will agree that he has succeeded in making the impression that he ultimately sought. Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing an advanced ecopy. Book publishes Oct. 24, 2017

  • Nancy

    "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." from the publisher's website

    Taibbi's book I Can't Breathe explains the evolution of discrimination justified by being 'tough on crime' and how it lead to the death of Eric Garner, which fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

    R

    "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." from the publisher's website

    Taibbi's book I Can't Breathe explains the evolution of discrimination justified by being 'tough on crime' and how it lead to the death of Eric Garner, which fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Random House sent me an email offering pre-approval to read I Can't Breathe by Matt Taibbi. I downloaded the book to check it out, and realized it was the perfect book to build upon other recent reads about justice and race, including Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Detroit: 1967, Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    I had acquired a basic understanding that the justice system was inherently racist. Taibbi's thorough consideration of the death of Eric Garner explained the political and social pressures that changed police culture after overt institutional racism was pushed underground.

    Taibbi presents a balanced portrait of a beloved family man who was deeply flawed, as we all are, but whom Taibbi came to truly like. Readers will connect to Eric, a bigger than life, eccentric character. Unemployable because of a prior conviction, Eric supports his family by creating a business selling 'loosies', black market cigarettes smuggled in from states with lower cigarette taxes and sold individually. Eric is jailed and fined over and over.

    When Americans became worried about crime during the tumultuous 1970s politicians began offering promises to be 'tough on crime.' White Americans were afraid of urban African Americans.

    In the 1990s, New York City led the way by pushing for increased arrests. Cops were to stop and frisk first to see if they could turn up anything to justify an arrest! People were targeted by color, attire, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, reaching for their pocket--but the real motivation was racism. Blacks and Hispanics in high-crime neighborhoods were targeted.

    Cops publicly humiliated their victims by public cavity searches and the use of unnecessary brute force was common. The system protected the cops.

    Garner stood out. He was big, he wore clothes that were literally falling apart, and he stood in the same place day after day. He had asthma. He had been looking poorly and was tired. He was robbed and beaten up, financially always struggling to support his family.

    Garner was an easy catch for a cop who needed to meet his quota. He was stopped and searched hundreds of times and when cops discovered a few packs of cigarettes he would be arrested and his money confiscated.

    Garner's son had just earned a scholarship to college, and Garner was the father of a new baby when he broke up a street fight. Cops who had been watching the fight arrested Garner even though he had not sold a cigarette all morning. Ramsey Orta saw the arrest and filmed it with his cellphone. When Garner countered that he had not done anything wrong and was not going to be arrested that day, four officers went after Garner and pushed him to the ground.

    "I can't breathe," he said over and over. And then he stopped breathing and the cops did nothing.

    Taibbi put Garner's death in perspective of how policing changed: instituting 'reasonable' suspicion as a validating a stop and frisk; the adoption of "Broken Windows" and the emphasis on policing as keeping 'order', creating a 'goal setting' culture; zero-tolerance policing and 'predictive policing'.

    Groups rose up to challenge the discriminatory methods but had little success. Eric's daughter Erica Garner worked for justice for her father. Bureaucracy protected the cops and left the families of victims without justice. Orta's cell phone video made him a police target. Politicians got involved for personal attention. Protest groups arose demanding justice, including Black Lives Matter.

    I am disgusted by how often I hear people counter Black Lives Matter with "all lives matter." That is true, but not all 'lives' are targeted because of color or where they live.

    A few years back I visited a college friend living in Detroit. Driving home I was lost and tense. When I got to an overpass with no cars I sped up a bit and was pulled over by a cop.

    The cop said, "don't say anything," and took my driver's license. He came back and said, "I will write this up so you don't have it on your record, but you will pay a fine." I wondered then what it was that caused him to do this? My clean driving record? And today I wonder, if I were a person of color, would he have searched my car and person looking for evidence to arrest me?

    I have never felt so protected and cushioned by the accident of my color as I have after reading I Can't Breathe.

    I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

  • Reading in Black & White

    "The lengths we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions - Garner's big dream was to someday sit down at work - were awesome to contemplate. What happened to Garner spoke to the increasing desperation of white America to avoid having to even see, much less speak or live alongside, people like him. Half a century after the civil rights movement, white America does not want to know this man. They don't want him walking in their neighborhoods. They want him moved off the corne

    "The lengths we went to as a society to crush someone of such modest ambitions - Garner's big dream was to someday sit down at work - were awesome to contemplate. What happened to Garner spoke to the increasing desperation of white America to avoid having to even see, much less speak or live alongside, people like him. Half a century after the civil rights movement, white America does not want to know this man. They don't want him walking in their neighborhoods. They want him moved off the corner. Even white liberals seem to, deep down inside, if the policies they advocate and the individual choices they make are any indication."

    This book was a whole lot to process. I went in thinking it was primarily going to be about Eric Garner and the events leading up to his death, but it went much deeper than that. It's evident we have a problem in this country, and Taibbi does an excellent job at putting his journalism skills on display by examining the NYPD. This book was frustrating, sad, fascinating and enlightening all in one. Full review to come. 5 stars

  • Trish

    The detailed nature of this book about the life and death of Eric Garner allows us to see, in horrible living color, exactly where we’re at in terms of race relations in the United States. Eric Garner died July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, victimized on this day by police who put him in a chokehold and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. What Taibbi does exceptionally well in this difficult book is allow us to see Eric Garner for the man he was—a well-liked and respected member of his com

    The detailed nature of this book about the life and death of Eric Garner allows us to see, in horrible living color, exactly where we’re at in terms of race relations in the United States. Eric Garner died July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, victimized on this day by police who put him in a chokehold and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. What Taibbi does exceptionally well in this difficult book is allow us to see Eric Garner for the man he was—a well-liked and respected member of his community.

    The entire story told here is a long and winding one, going back to pick up relevant cases along the way, including that of Carnell Russ of Alabama, whose death in 1971 by pistol shot at close range in a police station was challenged in court a number of times until finally we learn a monetary award was never paid to Carnell’s widow. Forty-five years later the original prosecutor in the Eric Garner trial, Dan Donovan, was elected to Congress, proud of his role in protecting the white people, in his eyes, unjustly under attack for upholding the law.

    So carefully has Taibbi prepared his case in the writing of this book that when we read the words “disrespect for the law, contempt for society, a refusal to abide by the responsibilities of a civilized people,” we briefly imagine the words were chosen to describe the men and women of the NYC police force who refused to give credence to citizen complaints about uncalled for police harassment and reckless endangerment. But no, this language was used by Joseph Concannon, retired NYPD captain and staunch defender of whatever the police did in the course of their duties, illegal or not.

    City politicians elected before, during, and after the prosecution of the Eric Garner case come off looking weak and ineffectual at best, deliberately obfuscating at worst. The case of the killing of Eric Garner came amidst a rash of police killings around the country that were well publicized, mostly due to actual video of the crimes. It is absolutely horrifying to imagine for a moment how these cases would have been treated in the absence of a video record. Even in these cases, obstruction into the behaviors of repeat offender police is rampant, common, and from the point of view of the citizenry, indefensible.

    The black lives examined in this work are extremely stressful. Putting ourselves in their place, we might even say these lives and conditions of life are hopeless. But Eric Garner did not see things that way, and certainly on the day he died, he was the happiest he’d been in a very long time, his son having just been awarded a sports scholarship for advanced education. Taibbi is able to make us feel the heat that day in July, and the satisfaction the big man would have felt. We’re plenty pleased for him, too.

    I have wondered, in thinking of Taibbi’s past work, what it would be like to to be on the other side of one of his scathing investigations.

    , because he co-authored a book during his expat days in Moscow, in which he targeted everyone in the outsized-profits-fueled economy, from foreigners gaming the system to Russian oligarchs and their deadly, beautiful hookers. Adolescent, ridiculous, and forgettable, excerpts I read from that earlier work should have meant a far longer, more circuitous path to legitimate journalism. The argument in the link above charges Taibbi with sexism and misogyny, a shadow of which, it could be argued, appeared in his description here of Assistant DA Anne Grady.

    It is my contention that Taibbi’s work uncovering the hows and whys of the life surrounding Eric Garner is a far weightier thing on the scales of right and wrong-doing than that earlier work. It is important we all scour our own past for sexism—doling it out or letting it pass—before nailing the coffin shut on the talent and real heart shown here. With this book, Taibbi blows past any criticisms that could be leveled for those earlier errors in judgment and gives us something terribly important: a honest, raw look at where we stand in our race relations right now. Perhaps only bad boys could understand, empathize with, and give us the nuance of all the imperfect characters Taibbi details for us here, and get to the depth in this story that explains Eric Garner’s life and untimely death.

    Several of the Irish-sounding names in this history are exactly those of loved ones within my own family, though I don’t believe I am related to any of them. My grandfather was a Boston cop. What I take from this is that whatever place these white policemen go to in their heads when it comes to fairness and justice, it is not inevitable, and it doesn’t come from the color of their skin. I recall

    ,

    A lot has happened from then to now, but nothing that can’t be undone.

  • Theresa Alan

    I found this nonfiction book hard to put down. It’s about Eric Garner and his death at the hands of overzealous police, but it’s also about all the lawyers and judges and policies in place to protect police officers and encourage the harassment of black and brown people.

    Garner comes off as a sympathetic though flawed individual. The police officers and other members of law enforcement do not come off looking good at all. This is not about good cops; it’s about the bad ones who go unpunished.

    I’

    I found this nonfiction book hard to put down. It’s about Eric Garner and his death at the hands of overzealous police, but it’s also about all the lawyers and judges and policies in place to protect police officers and encourage the harassment of black and brown people.

    Garner comes off as a sympathetic though flawed individual. The police officers and other members of law enforcement do not come off looking good at all. This is not about good cops; it’s about the bad ones who go unpunished.

    I’ve been a fan of Matt Taibbi’s journalism for years, and this book cemented my admiration for his work. He criticizes liberals and conservatives alike for allowing this sort of discriminatory policing to be encouraged. Garner was a large man and an easy bust, and because of various quotas police officers were given, he was often arrested for his petty crimes. He didn’t get worked up when he was arrested for actually committing a crime, but they harassed him when he’d just be doing his laundry at the laundry mat or something, too.

    The man who took the famous video of Garner was also harassed endlessly after the video went viral the world over. Some of the minor crimes he did commit, but many of the busts were entirely fabricated to get him to cop to a plea.

    The descriptions of police brutality are hard to read. What this book is more concerned about, though, are things like why the prosecuting attorney Dan Donovan brought in 50 witnesses and yet failed to bring an indictment against the officer who did the illegal chokehold. (Daniel Pantaleo is still a police officer despite numerous abuse allegations, including completely unfounded strip searches conducted on the street in broad daylight.) Moreover, countless lawyers tried to get the grand jury information unsealed, to no avail. What did they have to hide? Donovan successfully ran as a Republican to fill the seat by congressman Michael Grimm, who’d been indicted on twenty federal counts. You may remember him as the lovely man who told a reporter (while a TV crew was filming) that he’d throw him over the balcony.

    The reason the Garner case made so much news is because it was all caught on video. “Absent the cellphone videos, in other words, nobody would like have heard how Eric Garner really died.” But in this way his case was the exception.

    I was shocked to hear all the obstacles a person has to go through to get a substantiated abuse charge against a police officer. All we, the public, ever hear about are the families who get million-dollar settlements. They represent virtually none of the cases actually alleged.

    This is an important book about race and policing—not just individual police officers but the system as a whole. I could quote huge passages from this book. Highly recommend.

    Thanks so much to NetGalley and Random House for the opportunity to review this advanced copy. RELEASES OCTOBER 24.

    For more of my reviews, please visit:

  • Julie

    I am going to review this book at some point. But, the world we live in right now is just crazy!! Information regarding the author of this book, which came to light just as I turned the last pages of this book have stunned me. While, I realize this is a story that needs telling, that Eric's daughter, Erica, needs the whole story told, and is counting on this book, and it is an important book, I'm going to come back to it after things with this author are clearer, and I can approach it without th

    I am going to review this book at some point. But, the world we live in right now is just crazy!! Information regarding the author of this book, which came to light just as I turned the last pages of this book have stunned me. While, I realize this is a story that needs telling, that Eric's daughter, Erica, needs the whole story told, and is counting on this book, and it is an important book, I'm going to come back to it after things with this author are clearer, and I can approach it without those images in my mind.

  • Jennifer

    I Can't Breathe proved to be a very difficult read. Garner's death is certainly not the only important one, but it did help create talk and start a movement. It's deeply disturbing to hear how some of these situations went down and the aftermath. Selling loose cigarettes/packs for a cheaper amount (while considered 'illegal') doesn't seem to warrant the outrageous bail amounts or jail time and eventual death by chokehold. I feel a lot of despair for our country and our legal system after reading

    I Can't Breathe proved to be a very difficult read. Garner's death is certainly not the only important one, but it did help create talk and start a movement. It's deeply disturbing to hear how some of these situations went down and the aftermath. Selling loose cigarettes/packs for a cheaper amount (while considered 'illegal') doesn't seem to warrant the outrageous bail amounts or jail time and eventual death by chokehold. I feel a lot of despair for our country and our legal system after reading this book. I'm embarrassed to be part of the (white) human race sometimes. I fear for this presidency, and the hate it has brought already and the fear. This book was very real written and researched. I found myself noting many lines in my kindle and sharing them. This book gave a lot of insight and it will continue to affect me. Of course my feelings do not even compare to those of the ones affected and living this nightmare...we can do better than this America. We need to do better than this.

  • Rebecca McNutt

    This was incredibly sad. I live under a rock, so I had no idea who Eric Garner was until now, but his story and tragic death is a cry out to us all to stop injustice when we see it, and a wake-up call to police brutality.

  • Raymond Rusinak

    Quite a good book. Yes, Taibbi can be pompous, bombastic and smarmy throughout but he manages to put a human face on Eric Garner. He gives a man who is known nationally as the guy who got shot for selling cigarettes a humanistic identity. He was no angel. He had multiple warts and blemishes but generally speaking he was a good man, who rightly or wrongly was just trying to get by, trying to support his family.

    Taibbi provides a very informative synopsis of race and police policy in NYC which is

    Quite a good book. Yes, Taibbi can be pompous, bombastic and smarmy throughout but he manages to put a human face on Eric Garner. He gives a man who is known nationally as the guy who got shot for selling cigarettes a humanistic identity. He was no angel. He had multiple warts and blemishes but generally speaking he was a good man, who rightly or wrongly was just trying to get by, trying to support his family.

    Taibbi provides a very informative synopsis of race and police policy in NYC which is instrumental IMHO to understand what happened that fateful day.

    This is worth the read just for the last chapter’s conclusion & synopsis not to mention the afterward which provides some last minute denuma.

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