Attorney General Eric Holder emerged at the Justice Department podium in primetime to announce that his department will proceed with a federal civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner.
Holder’s announcement came just hours after a grand jury on Staten Island decided to not indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was placed his arm around Garner’s neck while pulling him to the ground and keeping him there during the July arrest. Garner complained he couldn’t breathe, and soon after died of a heart attack.
Holder said that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and the FBI had been monitoring the local grand jury proceedings “closely,” and will now conduct an “independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation.”
The attorney general said he’d been in touch with Garner’s widow, President Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio about the DOJ decision.
“We have all seen the video of Mr. Garner’s arrest. His death, of course, was a tragedy. All lives must be valued,” Holder said. “Mr. Garner’s death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.”
“This is not a New York issue or a Ferguson issue alone. Those who have protested peacefully across our great nation following the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson have made that clear.”
Holder stressed that the “vast majority of our law enforcement officers perform their duties honorably and are committed to respecting their fellow citizens civil rights as they carry out their very challenging work.”
“It is for their sake as well that we must seek to heal the breakdown in trust we have seen,” he said.
Holder acknowledged that “substantial numbers of people” are “disappointed and frustrated” in today’s grand jury verdict. “I know many will plan to voice their disappointment publicly through protests,” he said. “This is the right of all Americans.”
He urged protesters to remain peaceful and “not to engage in activities that deflect our attention from the very serious matters our nation must confront.”
Garner’s wife, Esaw, told media, “My husband’s death will not be in vain; as long as there’s a breath in my body I will fight the fight.”
“I don’t know what video they were looking at; evidently it wasn’t the same video the rest of the world was looking at,” his mother, Gwen Carr, said.
“We’ve gotta make this right, and we’re so happy that the federal government is now talking about taking over and investigating. We asked them twice before,” Carr added.
She urged protesters to “make a statement, but make it in peace. Do what you have to, but do it in peace.”
Obama delivered a few thoughts on the Garner decision as news broke during the White House Tribal Nations Conference.
The video showing Garner’s death, he said, “speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”
“And there’s going to be, I’m sure, additional statements by law enforcement. My tradition is not to remark on cases where there may still be an investigation,” Obama said. “But I want everybody to understand that this week, in the wake of Ferguson, we initiated a task force whose job it is to come back to me with specific recommendations about how we strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color and minority communities that feel that bias is taking place; that we are going to take specific steps to improve the training and the work with state and local governments when it comes to policing in communities of color; that we are going to be scrupulous in investigating cases where we are concerned about the impartiality and accountability that’s taking place.”
“And as I said when I met with folks both from Ferguson and law enforcement and clergy and civil rights activists, I said this is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for too long and it’s time for us to make more progress than we’ve made,” he added. “And I’m not interested in talk; I’m interested in action. And I am absolutely committed as president of the United States to making sure that we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law.”
New York’s senators called on the Justice Department to investigate soon after the verdict was announced.
“The Justice Department must launch a Federal investigation into Eric Garner’s death as soon as possible,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted.
“While this decision is shocking, I want to echo the statement of a wide range of leaders inside and outside of government who are urging that protests remain peaceful in the aftermath of this decision,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “The death of Eric Garner is a tragedy that demands accountability. Nobody unarmed should die on a New York City street corner for suspected low-level offenses. I’m shocked by this grand jury decision, and will be calling on the Department of Justice to investigate.”
The congressman who represents Staten Island, Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), defended the job done by the grand jury.
“There’s no question that this grand jury had an immensely difficult task before them, but I have full faith that their judgment was fair and reasoned and I applaud DA Donovan for overseeing this case with the utmost integrity,” Grimm said in a statement. “As we all pray for the Garner family, I hope that we can now move forward and begin to heal together as a community.”
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx, said the decision “just adds to the feeling of that our criminal justice system is failing minority victims and letting the perpetrators get away.”
“Today’s decision will rightfully reignite the sense of outrage that many felt after the Ferguson grand jury decision, especially in New York,” Serrano said. “While I understand their frustration, I encourage people to express it through peaceful means. We don’t need to resort to violence to make our voices heard.”