A grand jury in New York declined Wednesday to charge a white police officer in the choking death of a black man, inflaming the political debate over race and the criminal justice system that has raged since last week’s events in Ferguson, Mo.
Attorney General Eric Holder launched a federal probe of the case as Democrats on Capitol Hill reacted furiously to the decision, questioning how a grand jury could close the books on Eric Garner’s death when the incident was captured on tape.
“It is apparent, if you go back through our history, that the grand juries of the criminal justice system [do] not value black lives,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) told The Hill.
“Michael Brown happened to be black. Trayvon Martin happened to be black. Eric Garner was a black man. So this pattern continues over and over.”
Clay represents Ferguson, where Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by officer Darren Wilson in August. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson last week, igniting protests around the country. That case follows the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Martin in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.
President Obama on Wednesday vowed not to “let up” in his push to address issues in the criminal justice system, saying the Garner case speaks “to the larger issues we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year and sadly for decades.”
“It is incumbent upon all of us as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem; this is an American problem,” he said.
“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem. And it’s my job as president to help solve it.”
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday night it would open a civil rights investigation into Garner’s killing.
“Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation,” Holder said.
Garner died after New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a choke hold while officers tried to arrest him. A bystander caught the incident on video. In the footage, the 43-year-old, asthmatic Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, and a grand jury was formed in September.
The decision not to indict Pantaleo was denounced by members of the New York congressional delegation, who demanded a federal investigation and called for the U.S. to take a hard look at disparities in the justice system.
“Until we face it for what is it, having a black president has not resolved the problem at all,” Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) said they were incredulous that an indictment wasn’t handed down, given that Garner’s death was caught on tape.
Former CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), an attorney, said he had watched the Garner video “over and over again.” He called the decision “extremely upsetting” and said it will perpetuate the “distrust” of law enforcement within the African-American community.
“When people can’t see a trial come out of that, they then ask the question, ‘What facts must be established to have a trial?’ ” said Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Here is a lot different from Ferguson — we actually saw it. We’ve got a video.
“He didn’t deserve to die.”
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), another CBC member, said the Garner decision was “extremely hard for me to believe.”
“I’m almost speechless, and that’s hard for me to be,” he said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand it.
“It also sends very bad signals coming off of all the things we’ve had happening in the country: Ferguson, back to Trayvon Martin. It just shows that there’s a Ferguson around every corner, doesn’t it?”
While Democrats expressed outrage at the decision not to prosecute, two New York Republicans said the public should respect the grand jury’s decision.
“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 [Daniel] Donovan for overseeing this case with the utmost integrity,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who represents Staten Island, where Garner was killed.
“During this tense time in New York, it must be noted and remembered that no organization has done more to safeguard the lives of young African Americans in New York City than the NYPD,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) in a statement on Facebook.
Pantaleo released a statement through his police union expressing his condolences to the Garner family.
“It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” he said.
He remains suspended by the NYPD, according to The New York Times.
Garner’s father denounced the decision while calling for protests to remain peaceful.
“There is no justice system,” Ben Garner told the Staten Island Advance. “Whites can kill blacks, but not the other way around.
“Who can control the Police Department? We had a damn video tape,” he said.
Police conduct has come under harsh scrutiny since the killing of Brown in Ferguson.
Obama on Monday announced new measures to address criticism of police forces around the country, including a push to outfit officers across the country with body cameras.
If the funding is matched by state and local law enforcement, Obama’s move could result in the deployment of 50,000 body cameras to officers. The small cameras record interactions between police officers and civilians.
New York City has been quick to adopt the cameras. On Wednesday, before the Garner decision became public, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city would seek funding for the devices.
But some lawmakers questioned whether the cameras would be enough in light of the Garner decision.
“What good is a body camera? We had a body camera here,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said.
“America, I hope you’re looking,” Meeks said. “Your eyes are not lying — that tape was real.”
Scott Wong, Mike Lillis and Kevin Cirilli contributed reporting.
— This story was posted at 2:35 p.m. and last updated at 8:51 p.m.