Protesters swarmed a major New York City highway at the height of Monday's rush hour, stretching a banner across the FDR condemning the NYPD officer accused of using a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo's NYPD trial began Monday in the death of the 43-year-old Garner, whose dying words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for the national movement against police brutality.
Garner, an unarmed black man, refused to be handcuffed after police stopped him on a Staten Island street corner for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Pantaleo is seen on a widely watched cellphone video putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
Garner is heard gasping repeatedly, "I can't breathe."
Members of Garner's family, including his mother Gwen Carr, broke down and cried as the footage was played Monday, the first exhibit for the prosecution. A relative sobbed uncontrollably and had to be escorted from the courtoom. Carr, who was in the front row next to the Rev. Al Sharpton, walked out as well.
In opening statements, a prosecutor for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police watchdog agency bringing the case against Pantaleo, described the video footage, saying the officer using a "strictly prohibited chokehold."
"Officer Pantaleo buries this helpless man into the pavement, indifferent to his cries for help," the prosecutor said as the video was shown.
Garner suffered a heart attack in an ambulance and was pronounced dead at a hospital. The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold. He was heavyset and had asthma, which were also contributing factors, the medical examiner's office said.
Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, had argued at a department hearing last month that the NYPD's chief surgeon ruled in 2014 that Pantaleo hadn't used a chokehold on Garner. He re-upped his insistence in opening statements Monday, saying Pantaleo "did not use a chokehold but a neckhold, an approved method ... it's called a seat belt technique. The purpose is to take the individual down."
He also blamed Garner's health for his demise, saying the Staten Island father "died from being morbidly obese ... coupled with chronic asthma. He was a ticking time bomb who set these factors in motion by resisting arrest."
London also used those now infamous words, "I can't breathe," against Garner, saying, "We know he wasn't choked out because he is speaking." He said it was a misconception that those words were said when Pantaleo's hands were around Garner's neck, saying it happened when multiple cops tried to cuff him.
Emergency medical technicians casually strolled up to the scene without oxygen or other measures that could have helped Garner, who was so medically fragile that even a bear hug might have led to the same consequences, London said.
"The only one that did their job that day, I will submit, is officer Pantaleo," he said, adding Pantaleo feared for his life when he felt Garner was trying to push him toward a plate glass window.
Pantaleo, who is white, could face penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to firing if he's found to have violated department rules. He has consistently denied wrongdoing.
"Yesterday was Mother's Day," the CCRB prosecutor also said in opening statements. "Nothing will bring Eric Garner back but this court can bring Mr. Garner's family some measure of justice."
Carr said she wanted just that as she headed into court early Monday, light rain steadily falling across the city. Asked how she was doing, she said briefly, "I feel like the weather."
"We are looking for justice," Carr added. "We hope the departmental trial proves in our favor."
Pantaleo does not face criminal charges; a grand jury declined to indict him the year Garner died, prompting days-long protests and marches across the city. News 4 cameras were rolling when the latest protest unfurled on the FDR Monday.
At one point, News 4 saw a van stop in the middle of the southbound lanes; five people jumped out and unfurled a banner.
They stretched that sign, which appeared to call for Pantaleo's firing, across the highway, making it impossible for traffic to move by them at the height of Monday's morning rush. NYPD officers responded, but there was no immediate word on possible arrests. Then the protesters started to march toward Houston.
The NYPD decided to go forward with the disciplinary case against Pantaleo last year as it ran out of patience with the federal government's indecision about bringing a criminal case. The trial is expected to stretch into June -- and it won't be an easy case for the prosecution.
A ruling last week requires that the CCRB prove not only that the officer violated NYPD rules, but that his actions fit the criteria for criminal charges.
London says the NYPD shouldn't be handling any prosecution. He took issue with the initial citizen complaint the agency took from someone claiming to be an witness to Garner's death, which became the springboard to the review board's involvement, by questioning the veracity of that account and by extension board's jurisdiction.
"If I thought this person was actually there, I would not be making this argument," he said outside court late last month.
Fred Davie, chair of the review board, said the stance was "a baseless attempt to delay officer Pantaleo's prosecution."
He added, "With closure for the Garner family hanging in the balance, the trial for officer Pantaleo must proceed as scheduled and not be further delayed by these meritless maneuvers."
Garner's family received $5.9 million from the city in 2015 to settle a wrongful death claim. Federal prosecutors have until July to file civil rights charges against Pantaleo.