In February 2020, a 25-year old African-American man named Ahmaud Arbery was shot, murdered by a white father and son. They tracked Mr. Arbery like he was an animal, pursuing him in their truck after watching him jog in their neighborhood. A recent video captured the slaying—the lynching—and it sparked national outrage over the case. Months went by, and finally, the guilty father and son were arrested and charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
Rewind the clock to July 17, 2014, when Eric Garner, an African-American husband, father, son in Staten Island, was murdered by Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer after Pantaleo held Garner in a chokehold while Garner resisted arrest. Struggling to speak as Pantaleo climbed on to Garner’s back to hold him down, Garner’s pleaded for life saying, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he passed away. His words would then become the war cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lynchings of African-American people are happening. That’s what it was in 2020 and in 2014, with Mr. Garner.
On record, the police thought Garner was selling “looses” — single cigarettes. This was the “crime” of which he was judged and then murdered by those who took an oath to protect and serve.
“Protect and Serve” are the words we see on the side of many police cars and is the motto of most police forces. The words define the mission of the police, which is to “protect” citizens (including African Americans and Latinos) and “serve” the public.
Got it? Now back to Eric Garner. This murdered husband|father|son did not receive justice. Here is what happened. Despite viewing a video of Pantaleo choking (killing) Garner, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo (in 2014) and this unconvicted murderer held his job at the NYPD until 2019 when he was finally fired. To date, the grand jury transcripts were never revealed and there was no trial.
In Roee Messinger’s “American Trail: The Eric Garner Story” — there is an attempt to imagine a trail and contemplate a future that was extinguished not only costing him his life but robbing his family.
Welcome to the United States of America where racism rules and where we lose thousands of men and women of color to a purposely flawed legal system.
Although Messinger’s film is fictional, lose, and most unscripted; using actor Anthony Altieri as an exception even here he speaks only from Pantaleo’s public statements and from the information gathered from his attorney.
It’s a bold move on the director’s part. After researching the case exhaustively, real lawyers play the defenders, prosecutors, and the judge, and litigate as if they were fighting a “real” case in a “real” court.
Although this is a mock trial, experts and the witnesses called to testify are all people who would have been summoned had there been a real one. The narrative is further supported by showing news clippings and opinions from activists and legal experts.
According to the press, notes provided the film crew’s extensive research is what makes “American Trial: The Eric Garner Story” unique.
“American Trial: The Eric Garner Story” doesn’t just lay out an alternate reality but also asks the hard questions about our legal system’s capability to handle cases like Garner’s murder.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the “trail” (and there were many) is the defense lawyers repeated mention of Garner’s obesity and asthma being instrumental in causing his death. 11 times he explained he could not breathe, 11 times.
And then it gets downright odd as the discussion centers on Pantaleo’s hand positions and what qualifies to be a fatal chokehold. I must repeat that Garner told the Police 11 times that he could not breathe before he was finally murdered by Pantaleo.
Now the justice system did not label Garner’s murder as a “homicide”. Oops. Let me re-write this. The American justice system did not label Garner’s “death” as a “homicide” but the coroner’s report clearly states homicide as the cause of Garner’s death.
To keep “crazy” alive and well inside the court of “justice” the defense lawyers hammered the jury not to accept the medical definition of homicide.
Messinger’s intervention is to present the facts. Garner was murdered by Police officer Pantaleo.
It’s interesting to note that Messinger is a South Asian man of color and in his film, we have a South Asian-American lawyer aggressively defending Pantaleo and an Asian forensic pathologist who refuses to acknowledge that it was Pantaleo’s brutal actions and not Garner’s weight and existing medical conditions that killed him.
Pantaleo killed him. The police officer squeezed the life out of his body — an African-American husband/father/son — despite telling them 11 times “I can’t breathe.”
At the end of “American Trial: The Eric Garner Story,” we are left with Garner’s widow, Esaw Snipes Garner, weeping after she watched her “mock” testimony. It’s been a difficult life for Mrs. Garner, in 2017, she also lost her daughter, Erica Garner, to a cardiac arrest.
“American Trial: The Eric Garner Story” uses the murder of Eric Garner to look at the broken American legal system. No, the shattered American legal system designed — in my humble opinion — to punish black, brown, and impoverished people. “They” don’t want the legal system fixed. “They” like it just the way it is. That’s my take away from “American Trial: The Eric Garner Story”.
“American Trial: The Eric Garner Story”. Virtual Theatrical Release MAY 18 “You Are The Jury” Livestream Event MAY 21.