I Can't Breathe

A Killing on Bay Street

By Matt Taibbi

Spiegel & Grau

322 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Paul Butler


nolead ends I Can't Breathe is journalist Matt Taibbi's gut-wrenching account of the death and life of Eric Garner. As the whole world knows, Garner died in 2014 after being placed in an illegal chokehold by a New York City cop who was arresting him for selling a "loosie" tobacco cigarette on a Staten Island street. The book is a deep dive into every aspect of the case, including its legal impact, which is minimal, and its cultural and political impact, which has been profound.

But the most revealing stories Taibbi tells - the ones that made me put the book down because it got too heartbreaking - are about other African Americans, mostly male and poor, who were stopped and frisked, strip-searched, sexually assaulted, set up, beaten, or killed for the tragic reason that racist cops didn't like them, or the even more tragic reason that such humiliations are ordained by U.S. law and policy.

The narrative unfolds like an episode of The Wire but without the comic relief - or that show's grudging empathy for the cops. Some readers might object to Taibbi's sustained outrage. But by no means does he portray those subject to police abuse as saints. (Garner had been found guilty of a number of crimes, for example.) But Taibbi is mad as hell at the police and the politics that empowers their brutality in the 'hood.

Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who put Garner in the chokehold, is, in Taibbi's account, a muscular hothead. Before his encounter with Garner, he'd racked up more civilian complaints than the typical cop, costing the NYPD thousands of dollars in settlements. That pales in comparison with the more than $5 million Garner's family reportedly received in a civil settlement, but Pantaleo remains a sworn officer of the NYPD. In what passes for good news in the sordid mess, he is now confined to desk duty. Taibbi suggests that Dan Donovan, then the Staten Island district attorney, engineered the process so Pantaleo would not be charged. Donovan's reward, from the conservative voters of Staten Island, was his election to Congress, based in part on their approval of the way he handled the investigation of Garner's death.

Taibbi's account is bleak. For African Americans, the criminal laws work too well and the civil rights laws not well at all. A black man has no rights a cop is bound to respect. Inspiration, if any, comes from the people who resist, even if that is mainly a losing prospect.

Paul Butler is the Albert Brick professor in law at Georgetown University. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.