The NYPD and chokeholds

“A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.” – from the 2004 NYPD patrol guide

The first time I was in New York City was also the first time I medicked a protest there. It was an OWS protest, one that happened to have a lot of out-of-towners who were also having their first New York City experience. That evening it was only a sidewalk march, not unusual or illegal. Not long after the march began, I started seeing reports of arrests in the back, and soon enough they started making their way toward the front. People selected seemingly at random from the crowd – grabbed, punched, tackled, with no idea why. I remember one frightened and obviously bewildered young man, perhaps five feet away from me at the time, screaming “What did I do?” as police grabbed him by the arm and shirt and tried to drag him away from fellow protesters who had grabbed him by the shoulders in an attempt to protect him.

In one of my most vivid memories from that evening, as I continued down the sidewalk with the march, I came upon a person being arrested – a middle-aged white person who looked like they might be somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum. The arrestee was kneeling on the curb, being cuffed and held in place by a couple of cops. They had what appeared to be a handbag or purse. The strap of the handbag was around their throat, with a twist to make a loop, and a cop standing to their right was calmly pulling on the handbag, pulling the strap tighter against their throat. The arrestee’s eyes and mouth were open wide in a silent wail.

Even though I would see a lot more over the next few days, and get body-checked myself by the NYPD later that evening, and go on to medic several more times in New York City, when I think of the NYPD the first thing I think of is usually that awful scene of the terrified person being slowly choked by their own bag strap while restrained. There’s no way I could have freed them, but sometimes I also kick myself for not stopping to tell the cops, out loud, that what they were doing could kill this person. Even though it would likely have just gotten me beaten and arrested. What if the person had been killed?

I’ve remembered this story during the coverage of Eric Garner’s killing by the NYPD. During the talk about chokeholds. Garner is dead, leaving six children fatherless. He’s dead at the hands of a cop who had been the subject of two previous civil rights lawsuits over his abuse of black men. He’s dead at the hands of a department against which, according to the BBC, there were 219 complaints about chokeholds between July 2013 and July 2014. He’s dead at the hands of a department whose killings of mostly black and Latino people have not gone down even as violent crime rates in New York City have plummeted.

I’ve seen other chokeholds from the NYPD since then – throat grabs, arms across the throat, and more. The most recent occurred the last time I ran as a street medic in New York City, during Flood Wall Street, where an officer tackled a protester with his arm over the protester’s throat. If not for the Garner case I would not have realized that they were banned by the NYPD.

Because I’ve lived in neighborhoods of relative privilege, the examples of cops, NYPD or otherwise, using chokeholds, that I’ve personally seen, have been at protests, and they have been primarily white people (though not always – many people who go to protests have noticed that protesters of color are often targeted by police the same way that people of color in other contexts are). However, people of color are disproportionately likely to experience overpolicing (like stop and frisk, or young trans women of color being arrested for prostitution when they carry condoms) and brutal policing. Eric Garner is not the only notable example of a black or brown person victimized by an NYPD chokehold. Only a week later, Rosan Miller, a black woman who was seven months pregnant at the time, was placed in a chokehold during a dispute over her grilling food in front of her house. Reynold Johns, a black man, had been choked only a few days before. Latino Brooklynite Angel Martinez was riding his bike on the sidewalk and refused to consent to a search in 2012, and is now pursuing a complaint against the NYPD, saying that he was beaten and choked. There are hundreds of chokehold complaints out there, and the people making them are mostly not white and mostly not participating in protests at the time.

The NYPD chokehold problem goes well beyond Eric Garner, and it isn’t going away unless we make it go away. And if we don’t address it, it will keep happening, and it will only be a matter of time until someone else dies. I think about it and remember my very first evening in New York City, and a figure kneeling on a curb, eyes and mouth open, that I couldn’t help.

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