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A Racist and Unjust System? A Discussion on Policing in Wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner Deaths

A panel of guests discuss policing and race nationwide.

As Rev. Al Sharpton calls for a march on Washington next Saturday to demand action from the federal government on police brutality and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio orders the retraining of the city’s police force, we host a roundtable discussion on policing and race nationwide. We’re joined by three guests: Graham Weatherspoon is a retired detective with the New York City Police Department; Mychal Denzel Smith is a contributing writer for The Nation; and Harry Siegel is a columnist at the New York Daily News.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Harry Shapiro [sic] from the New York Daily News, Mychal Denzel—Harry Siegel from the New York Daily News, Mychal Denzel Smith from The Nation, and Graham Weatherspoon, retired detective with the New York City Police Department. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Graham, I’d like to ask you about the video we’ve just been talking about in the previous segment, that you’ve looked at that carefully, the video of the last moments of Eric Garner’s life.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes, I looked at it a number of months ago. As a matter of fact, a group of us met with the inspector general of NYPD and the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Investigations back in the summer.

In that video, as Eric Garner is laying on the gurney, you do not see his chest rising or falling. There is no apparent movement in his body whatsoever. He’s a large guy, and if he were taking a breath or if he had difficulty breathing, it would be quite obvious. His body lays there motionless. The EMTs arrive. First of all, the police officers are—two—number one, attempt to give some type of first aid to him. Allegedly there’s a pulse, they say, but you don’t see this large man’s body moving at all in the video. They made no attempt to open an airway. She just talks to him casually. And this is another problem, because many of the EMTs and the police officers, they work together. Had not—there’s a state law which requires medical personnel to report the abuse of a prisoner. It was done in the case of Abner Louima. It was a nurse that reported the physical violation of Abner Louima. And many times, the police—

AMY GOODMAN: Abner Louima is the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized by police.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Who was sexually sodomized, right.

AMY GOODMAN: And when he came to the hospital and was bleeding, it was the nurse.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: It was the nurse that reported it. Many times people wind up in the hospital, medical personnel, who are required by law to report the abuse of a prisoner, do not report it. So they too are complicitous in this whole system. It’s not just the criminal justice system, it’s the entire system. So the EMTs, the physicians—it runs a gamut. There’s a plethora of incestuous relationships here where everybody is covering for everybody else.

That shooting—I’ll be at the funeral tonight for the young man, Gurley. But no police officer is trained to walk on patrol with a gun in his hand. That’s as reckless as giving a drunk a gun and telling him to go down the street. You do not move around with a weapon in your hand. There’s no police—there’s no emergency condition. You do not walk with a gun, you do not run with a gun in your hand, for that simple reason. And they were never trained to do it. It is not a discretionary move on the officers’ part.

If you are afraid, stay home with Mommy. This is not a job that you can just jump into. If you are not prepared to do it—and I’ve spoken with rookies in the past. I said, “It is OK if you feel that you’re afraid. If you’re afraid, you need to seek out some other type of work—this is not a casual job—because you’re going to wind up hurting somebody or yourself.” And here it is. It’s called a tragedy. This is recklessness.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about all the people who are responsible, but what about all of those cops? We now know about Daniel Pantaleo. Quite astounding that the head of the PBA, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is talking about him as a model cop, when, among other things, you’ve got the lawsuits and settlements from 2013, you’ve got the image of him with that chokehold. But the other officers, some were granted immunity. I don’t know if they will be fired in this police investigation that begins today by the police commissioner.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: It’s acting in concert. You will find that, for instance, in Ferguson, they showed the video of Michael Brown going in and stealing some cigars. And he hands some to his friend, and his friend puts them back on the counter, and they leave the store. That went from a larceny to a robbery, technically. It was a robbery, forcibly taking, the man tried to retrieve it, Brown pushed him, and the two went out the door. Now, the other fellow who was with Brown could be charged with acting in concert, because he came with Michael Brown, the crime was committed, he didn’t do anything to try and stop Michael from doing what he was doing, and he left with Michael.

Here are police officers acting in concert in taking down a large man, who was not in distress because of his weight or diabetes. He only fell into distress when they jumped on him. At some point, one of the officers should say, “Hey, wait, wait, wait, hold it, hold it, hold it,” because now you’re going from a lawful act to a criminal act. When a person is begging for air and you show a depraved indifference to human life, that is a crime. Representative King said recently that it’s not a crime to choke. It is a felony crime to choke a person in the state of New York. He has a law degree, and he’s speaking errantly. It is a felony crime to choke, cut off the airway or the flow of blood to the brain, and render an individual unconscious. It is a felony crime.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mychal Smith, I’d like to bring you into the discussion. You just wrote a piece saying that the system cannot be reformed. Can you talk about that?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yeah, because what we’re talking about here is the disposability of black life. Like, we’re dancing around it, but the reason that Eric Garner lay there and no one helped him is this is a large black man. The reason Michael Brown’s body laid in the street for four-and-a-half hours is because this is a black man. The reason that the police show up on the scene and shoot Tamir Rice when he’s holding a toy gun in Cleveland is because he’s a black boy. Like, we are talking about the fact that, you know, you have a racist and unjust system. You have racist and unjust laws. Your law enforcement then has no choice but to be racist and unjust. That’s built into the fabric of what the police do.

So, if we’re actually talking about—if we’re not just talking about accountability after the fact, if we’re talking about preventing these deaths from the very beginning, it’s not about training the police officers not to carry their gun while they’re patrolling inside of public housing. It’s about why are they in the public housing buildings in the first place. It’s about this perceived threat of blackness. And it’s about undoing all of that and asking ourselves why we’ve become so reliant on police, in the first place, to respond to things that are so minor. I mean, the police are harassing Eric Garner for untaxed cigarettes, right?


AMY GOODMAN: In fact, at that point, it has been argued that he wasn’t even selling what they call these “loosies.”


MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Right. He says to them, “I don’t have any on me.”

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, he had just broken up a fight of others.


AMY GOODMAN: He had gone in to mediate that, and the police came to that. They did not see him doing that at that point.

HARRY SIEGEL: He sold cigarettes by the Staten Island Ferry. If you talk to anyone from that part of Staten Island, he’s a well-known guy. That wasn’t where he was. These cops recognized him. There had been pressure on that exact thing, for a variety of other reasons. And they’re just like, “Ah, this is a skell. This is not a person.” Is that, at least in some part, because he was black? I don’t doubt it for a second, especially in Staten Island.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back—

HARRY SIEGEL: But the police are in housing projects because crime there has been up, like real and serious crime. And if you go into any housing project and you talk to people there, they’ll talk a lot about bad policing, but they’ll also say that they want good policing there. They’d like the lights to work—


HARRY SIEGEL: —and they’d like to feel safe.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: And this is the thing, though. We foment social decay and then say, “Police, go fix it.” You know, like this is the problem here. We are overreliant on the police. And I understand the sentiment of people living in the housing projects. I mean, I’ve talked to kids who have watched their friends die, and they’re like, “Well, the police aren’t doing anything, and it feels like they’re leaving it up to us to get street justice,” right? So that then leads to retaliation and more murder. So, it would be nice if the police were solving these homicides in these black communities. But if we’re directing so much energy to patrolling, to little things like loitering, like, you know, public drunkenness—


MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: —so-called quality-of-life things, then we’re directing resources—

AMY GOODMAN: The “broken windows” policies.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: —away from the very serious things that people actually have complaints about and trying to fix real social ills with the police instead of investment in communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Graham, the amazing thing about all this is that this is not a new story.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: No, we’ve been here for—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We just had in—in today’s New York Times, Eric Adams, the borough president of [Brooklyn], a former police captain, tells an amazing story about when he was a teenager and he was picked up by the police and beaten mercilessly by a group of cops in a precinct, and—when he was 15 years old, and now he’s the borough president of [Brooklyn].

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Right. I was struck in the head when I was about seven or eight years old by a cop in the 75th Precinct, going to see a show with Danny Kaye, who grew up around the corner from where I lived. The knot is still on my head. You know, I took the job because I didn’t want somebody like the cop that hit me to get that position.

And we’re talking about race, and we talked about it yesterday. When I was applying for the job in 1974, a physician examined me, and as he checked me [inaudible], he says, “Hmm, I’m sorry, Mr. Weatherspoon, you have a heart murmur.” And I was a competitive athlete. I could run 10 miles in an hour. If I had had a heart murmur, I’d have been dead long before I could have seen him. So I asked him some medical terms, using medical terminology. And he said, “Well, how do you know about that?” I said, “Well, I went to school, and you went to school.” Suddenly, he’s like Oral Roberts. “Oh, well, forget about it. Don’t worry about it. Go get your ears checked.” So, what they do, they tell black people—they tell black men they have heart murmurs. They will have a cop come in while you’re doing your paperwork, aggravate you and agitate you to run your pressure up, then they’ll take your pressure and tell you you have high blood pressure. African-American women will come in. They will tell them they have scoliosis of the spine, because black women, we know, have a different structure, right? Now, all of these things, it’s like telling an Asian person there’s something wrong with their eyes because they’re very narrow.

So, all of this, there’s a paradigm of racism here, even down to stop-and-frisk, which was to criminalize young black men to prevent them from getting a decent job in the community and in the city wherein they live. And this is what Ray Kelly and Mike Bloomberg did for 12 years in this pattern of racist law and—racist and selective law enforcement. And we have to look at racism and understand it, because if we don’t, we will remain confused, as he was saying.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to make clear that Graham Weatherspoon is a retired police officer and retired New York City police detective. It might surprise you, as he describes the situation. But I want to go back to another officer, Daniel Pantaleo, and really go into his record. He’s actually been sued twice in the past for allegedly engaging in racially motivated misconduct while on the job. As the Staten Island Advance has reported, in 2012 two African-American men accused him of subjecting them to an illegal strip search in broad daylight. They said Pantaleo tapped each man’s testicles during the search, supposedly to discover any contraband. That suit was settled in January. In another lawsuit, a man accused a group of NYPD officers that included Pantaleo of arresting him despite the fact that he was, quote, “committing no crime at the time and was not acting in a suspicious manner.” The man said the officers used misleading data in their police report to justify the arrest. His charges were later dismissed.

On the streets, Mychal, last night, describe your experience, of the people who were there, the people who were dying-in, the thousands of people who came out. And it seems only to be building.

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes, thousands of people. Like, this emotion, this anger is boiling over. And it’s been building since the Ferguson decision announcement. I think that, you know, there were already going to be people in the streets because the solidarity actions across the country have done nothing but grow and become more targeted and bigger, but to have this come on the heels of that, and for it to be almost more egregious in a way, because you’re watching Eric Garner die—like, we’re not even talking about whether or not they could find Daniel Pantaleo guilty of any criminal charges. They couldn’t find probable cause by watching the man die, and watched Daniel Pantaleo put this chokehold on him. They couldn’t find probable cause. So, yes, people are just fed up. They’re fed up and screaming, “Black lives matter!” And it feels futile at this point, but the energy that’s growing around this movement feels like—it’s something that I’ve never seen before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the solutions being proposed now by Reverend Al Sharpton and others that we’ve got to go to the federal level to get these local prosecutions and grand juries’ investigations of police killings out of the hands of the local district attorneys, who have so many ties to the police? Graham, do you think there’s any possibility of change with that?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: We have called for that for more than a decade, and it goes nowhere. And this is why people definitely need to be voting and electing people that are thinking the same way they’re thinking. We can no longer vote for a mayor and not inquire of him, “Well, who are you planning to bring in as your police commissioner? Who are you planning to bring in as the head of the Board of Education?” People need to vote. They need to be represented adequately and truly by people who are there to serve the people.

We need to understand police officers theoretically are public servants, but that’s not what’s happening here. That’s not what’s happening. We need an independent examiner of these cases, who is not related to anybody in New York City in any way. They come in. They pull together all of the facts of the case—and I should not say “the facts”—the truth regarding the case, because facts and truth are two different things, because there are police officers who are errant. I have sent police officers to prison during my tenure as a detective. I had no problem doing it. Why? Because they weren’t police officers; they were criminals in the uniform. And we need now—we’ve seen it too many times in the Bronx with DA Johnson—I don’t have a problem mentioning his name—DA Brown. They threw the case with Sean Bell, failing to cross-examine, quote-unquote, “expert” witnesses on ballistics.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Bell, who died—what is it? Fifteen years ago? But—

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: It’s eight years ago.



AMY GOODMAN: Eight years ago.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: —just this past Thanksgiving.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe what happened to him, walking—it was the morning of his wedding. He was having his bachelor’s party. He walks outside. And?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: There was a team, supposedly, checking out alleged—they were at this club, Kalua Club, in Jamaica to find out about drug sales.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamaica, Queens.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: They found nothing. As a matter of fact, the officer who initiated the shots was trying to solicit one of the dancers for sex as the club was closing. All right? We got—and she was being harassed by the police. She had to leave her home and hide out prior to the grand jury, because they were pressuring her and threatening her. And here is the officer. He now—I can’t remember his name, but he is the one that initiated the fires, the shots being fired—and, oh, because a hand gesture. But you walk up to a car with gun in hand, when you were told not to engage—you’re the undercover. The undercover never engages. I worked decoys and ran decoy teams. The decoy never gets involved in the takedown. So, you walk up to a car with no identification, of course people are going to move, because they see you coming at them with a weapon. Of course Sean Bell was going try and get away, because you’re approaching him with a weapon. And then we blame the victim, consistently.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. This is the day after the second night of massive protests in New York, and these protests are happening all over the country in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in New York around Eric Garner, which occurred in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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