TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Eric Garner's last words were, I can't breathe.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Put your hands behind your back.
ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
GROSS: Garner said 11 times, I can't breathe, while he was put in a chokehold and thrown to the ground by police officers on a street in Staten Island on July 17, 2014. The coroner's report said the cause of death was homicide due to compression of neck, compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police. I can't breathe became a rallying cry at demonstrations protesting police brutality and the killing of black men by police.
Garner is famous for how he died, but few people know much about his life. Matt Taibbi is the author of the new book, "I Can't Breathe," about Garner's life, his death, the legal battles that followed and the policing policies that have led to the outrage expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement. One of Taibbi's previous books, "The Divide," was about the inequities between how the rich and the poor are dealt with by the American justice system. Taibbi is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and covered the Trump presidential campaign.
Matt Taibbi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about Eric Garner?
MATT TAIBBI: I didn't want to write about Eric Garner. I had no intention of writing this book, actually. What happened was on the day that the grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, who's the police officer involved in the infamous incident in which Garner died. When they decided not to indict him, there was a fury here in the city, and there were a lot of protests.
And I live not far from Staten Island, so out of curiosity, I just decided to go over to the neighborhood where Garner lived and talk to people and ask how they were feeling. And people started to tell me stories about Eric Garner the person. And I just found him so interesting that I ended up coming back over and over again, and that - it turned into a project that was more of a biography of this person's life than it was about police brutality or anything like that. But it turned into both, I would say, but it started out as just me interested in the person.
GROSS: Tell us one of the things that you learned about Eric Garner that made you interested in him as a person.
TAIBBI: He was complex, funny, larger than life, flawed. He was the kind of character that people talk about in the street. You know, everybody has a story about Garner. They're all funny. I mean, one of the first things I heard about him was that he used to buy whole pizzas and fold them in half and eat them like tacos. But he was also, in contrast to the way he's described in the news, where he's usually depicted as a small-time loosie cigarette dealer, he actually was a pretty decent businessman.
He was running a kind of a tight crew there where he had a bunch of people working for him. So he was successful at that in a sense. He was, on the other hand, a complete failure as a drug dealer, which was his prior occupation. He was just a complex person. He didn't want to be out there doing what he was doing, but he had kids and he had to feed them. And late in life, this just became a way for him to get by and he put all his money toward his family, and he was just an interesting person. He was - he had many facets to his personality.
GROSS: Slovenly is one of the words that you use to describe his look. (Laughter).
TAIBBI: Yeah. I mean, he - Garner had a lot of health issues. He had asthma. He had diabetes. He was constantly sick and had a runny nose. And one of the things that people would tell me was that he was always sort of wiping his nose with his hands and then wiping his hands on his sweatpants, and he wore the same sweatpants every day. And it was a little bit, as you say, slovenly, but that was unfortunately part of the calculation that led to his death because he was a very big man, but he was also - I think he attracted the attention of police because of his appearance.
You know, the police take pictures of neighborhoods, and if they see people who they believe don't have the right appearance, they want the police to clean up the blocks. So Garner was sort of a target of police because he was big, because he had a kind of a slovenly appearance and because I think there are certain people who decided that he was just unseemly to look at.
GROSS: So set the scene for us that night in July 2014. He's standing on a block. It's a block that he sold smuggled cigarettes on. And you describe the neighborhood there as changing. And that's part of the story, how the neighborhood was changing.
TAIBBI: A huge part of the story.
GROSS: Yeah. So describe what's going on in the neighborhood.
TAIBBI: So I talked to a drug dealer who spoke wistfully of Tompkinsville Park, which used to be called Needle Park, for obvious reasons, and he said, do you know the first time I moved here, I didn't see a cop for six whole months because when this area, which is in the northern part of Staten Island, you know, five, 10 years ago, it used to just be a straight up shooting gallery for heroin addicts, and there was nothing around. The police never came by the neighborhood because they didn't care.
But recently there's a new billion-dollar housing project that's being developed along the coastline there. So there's a row of these expensive tower condominium complexes not far from this park where Garner was doing his business. And suddenly, as soon as those condos went up, the police started coming by almost every day. And people who had never seen police, you know, for months, now they were seeing them every day and the tiniest transactions were attracting the attention of law enforcement.
And this was a huge part of the calculus with Eric Garner because my theory about this is is that he would never have been in the situation where he was being constantly pursued by the police if there were not expensive real estate developments across the street. He was exactly the kind of person that they were trying to get rid of in order to make this more expensive real estate.
GROSS: So just before Eric Garner was choked, he had broken up a fight. Describe what happened in that fight and what Garner did to break it up.
TAIBBI: Right. And this is a key part of the story. I probably talked to 20 or 25 people who were there that day. Not a single person I spoke to said that they had seen Eric Garner selling a cigarette in the hours preceding this incident. Garner was actually feeling unwell. He had gone to a bathroom in an office across the street. He came out of the bathroom, and there was a disagreement in the park.
Basically one man had said something about another man's daughter, and there was a fight. Fights there happened fairly regularly, but Garner, one of his roles in that neighborhood was to break up fights because fights attracted police. He used to say he tried to keep the block from getting hot. That was his expression. So he went. He broke up this fight between these two characters. And then as soon as he was done doing that, he went up and leaned up against the wall to catch his breath. And it was at that exact moment that he was approached by police.
And the timeline here is important because despite what's been reported in the news, there's no area in this entire timeline where Garner could possibly have been committing a crime even though the crime itself, had he been doing it, was not even a misdemeanor. He didn't even do that. He wasn't actually doing, you know, his business at that moment. And that's part of the dynamic that you see on the tape. He's flabbergasted because he can't believe that they're arresting him at a moment when he wasn't actually doing anything. So that's a huge component of this story is - and a big reason why he wouldn't go when they asked him to get into the squad car. He just felt like, you know, how can you arrest me now when I'm not doing anything?
GROSS: And he says over and over, I'm minding my business. Please leave me alone. Please leave me alone.
TAIBBI: Right. Right. And there's a dynamic here that I think is probably lost on people who don't know how this works. And I didn't know how this works, but when I spoke to police officers, they told me that, you know, if you go into a precinct and a lieutenant says to you, hey, I saw a guy standing on a corner over at X, Y or Z neighborhood; I want you to go pick him up; you can't just go to that corner and tell the guy to move off the corner or move around the block, you have to actually arrest the guy and so that there's a number that you can prove to your boss that you did something. And I think that's part of the dynamic here.
My theory here is that the officers in question were told that they had to pick up Garner. The police as much as said that they were there because they were responding to, quote-unquote, "specific conditions that had been seen by a superior officer on the way to the precinct that day." And I think Garner was - he was those specific conditions. And they didn't have the option of just telling him to move or go away. They had to pick him up. And that's why there was this, what should have been a nothing incident and should never have devolved into anything violent turned into this deadly melee.
GROSS: So the implication in your book is that the police saw the fight - the fight that Garner broke up - did nothing about the fight but then came to get Garner...
GROSS: ...The guy who broke up the fight.
TAIBBI: Right. Yeah, exactly. And this is a perfect metaphor for everything that's wrong with the modern policing strategies, you know, the things that we call broken windows policing, which heavily emphasizes targeting minor offenders. The whole theory of modern policing in most big cities in America is if you go after the little things, you know, people jumping turnstiles, riding bicycles the wrong way down a sidewalk, urinating in public, selling loosies, doing the little things, then people will be discouraged from walking out of their homes in the morning carrying a gun or with the intent to commit a more serious crime.
So the whole theory is, let's stop thousands and thousands of people over the course of every year. Arrest people for every minor trivial violation. And eventually, serious crime will decrease along with minor crime. But the problem is that heavy emphasis on minor crime leads to a lot of violent incidents that are unnecessary, on the one hand. And on the other hand, you see a lot of real serious crimes that are ignored. And this was a perfect example of that where you had a fight where they could easily arrested both of the people who were involved in that. But they ignored that in favor of Eric Garner who was just somebody who had been seen by another police officer standing on a corner a couple of hours previously.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Matt Taibbi. He's a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and author of the new book "I Can't Breathe" about Eric Garner. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Taibbi. He's a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and author of the new book "I Can't Breathe" about the life and death of Eric Garner.
We would probably not be talking about this story had it not been for the cellphone video that was shot by Ramsey Orta who lived right where Eric Garner was standing when the police came for him. And when you watch the tape, the police keep telling him to move. And he keeps saying I'm standing in front of my home. Like, I'm home. You can't - I'm on my stoop. You can't make me move. And then it sounds like they're maybe pushing him. And he keeps saying, like, don't touch me. I didn't touch you. Don't touch me. I'm sure you went back and watched this video while you were writing the book. And I want to ask you what you see when you watch the video and what impact this video has on you.
TAIBBI: It's a funny thing. I actually made a decision early on. As soon as I decided that I was going to write a book about this, I had only seen fragments of the tape, you know, the things that were on the news, maybe a few seconds here and there...
GROSS: Yeah, and we should mention the whole 11 minutes that was shot is on YouTube. It's easy to find.
TAIBBI: Right, right. It was it was given to a newspaper on the first day after the incident. And it was available for the entire world to see. That tape had a huge impact on everything because as you say, without it, we would never even heard about this. In fact, absent the medical examiner's report ruling this a homicide, this would probably have just been dismissed as an accident where a man who was in poor health died of natural causes in the course of a routine arrest for selling cigarettes.
But you know, the cellphone era has changed a lot of things. And I think it's opened the eyes, particularly of white Americans who may not have believed that this kind of thing goes on. I think when I interviewed black people, especially people in that neighborhood, none of them were really surprised by what happened. In fact, a lot of the people that I talked to had been through their own incidents with the police that were, you know, similarly violent. But I think seeing that video was a real eye opener for people who just didn't believe it beforehand.
GROSS: For people who haven't seen the video in a long time or who have never seen it, describe the confrontation with the police.
TAIBBI: Well, again, he's leaning up against the wall when they come. And these two officers, Damico and Pantaleo, who are plainclothes police officers - they come and tell Garner that they're picking him up, that he has to go. And Garner looks up at them incredulous and essentially says, for what? And they say for selling a cigarette. And everybody on the block, you can hear - in addition to Garner, you can hear Ramsey Orta saying, who did he sell a cigarette to? And it's almost comment because they don't really know at first. And then they sort of point down the street at somebody. And I know that the person that they were pointing out was this street character named Twin who happened to be the guy who had been involved in the fight. And you hear on the video, they're saying, yo, boss, that's the guy who was fighting.
So even on the tape, there's this obvious part of the story which is that Garner hadn't actually been selling a cigarette to anybody. And the police didn't even have a good excuse for picking him up. But they continue this back and forth. And Garner asks to be left alone. They tell him he has to go. And he's - you can see him struggling in his mind. Should I? Should I not? And he just decides at one point, you know, I've had enough. I'm not going to do it. And that's when he says this, this stops today.
He kind of stands up straight and decides not to go. And that's when they decide to jump him. And again, all of this was completely avoidable. They could have just told him to move around the corner. And they instead insisted on dragging him in. And that's what led to this awful incident.
GROSS: And describe how he gets in the chokehold.
TAIBBI: Yeah, so the one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo - they were both considerably smaller than Garner. Garner was a huge man. He was 6-foot-3 and weighed about 350 pounds. And what happens in the melees is that Pantaleo ends up behind Garner, and sort of jumps up behind him and throws an arm around his neck, and it ends up being a chokehold, which is a banned procedure, according to the New York City Police Department manual. And they end up rolling around on the ground at another point in the struggle.
A couple of the officers, actually, end up on top of Garner during the struggle. And this is important because later, when the medical examiner is - looked at Garner, they ruled it a homicide due to asphyxiation and compression of the chest, so it was probably a combination of the chokehold and people sitting on top of him that killed him.
Now, Garner was in poor health. He had diabetes. He had asthma. He had trouble breathing. But that wasn't what killed him. I think the medical examiners made a correct ruling. He's on the ground. He has people on top of him. He has arms - an arm around his neck, and he's saying, 11 times, I can't breathe. And that's how he dies in the end because of that asphyxiation.
GROSS: And Ramsey Orta is shooting all of this on video. At some point, you can't see anything because there's so many police who have converged, they're blocking the view. It's clear that Ramsey Orta, as he is shooting this video, has no idea that Eric Garner is dying and then is dead. You know, his view is blocked. He knows that Garner's been jumped by the police and that they're forcibly trying to arrest him, but that's all he seems to know.
TAIBBI: Well, what's so interesting about that is that that should tell people a lot if they're watching the video, this is actually so commonplace that nobody thought it was even unusual that this had happened. In fact, Ramsey Orta just a week before had filmed a very similar incident involving another street character named Jeff Thomas, who was thrown on the ground and was beaten with nightsticks for an arrest. It was - turned out to be a mistake where the police thought he had crack hidden in his mouth. Actually, he was - he had dentures in his mouth.
But that was captured on video by Ramsey Orta. And so I think what's going on in that moment where Orta can't see the - what happened to Eric Garner - and I talked to Ramsey about this. He didn't think anything was unusual about it just because he'd seen so many of these incidents that, you know, there was no emergency, you know, that he thought that had to be attended to. It was just another beating, as far as he was concerned.
GROSS: Who is Ramsey Orta?
TAIBBI: Ramsey Orta, right now, is in jail. He was a small-time drug dealer. He freely admits that. He was a seminotorious character who was known to everybody in this - in that area. I got to know Ramsey pretty well in the years after this incident. I - he's a really interesting person.
He actually called me while he was hiding from the police at the end of this years-long saga where he had been chased by the cops over and over again for a variety of offenses. And while we were on the phone, he sort of recounts the entire history of everything that happened to him from the moment he took that video until then.
And it - the way he describes it, he feels as though he kind of somehow psychically changed places with the officer in the case, Daniel Pantaleo, who should've been pursued by the authorities for the crime, but somehow, he was made to be the guilty one. And he's telling this fevered story to me from a hideout in the Bronx on the phone.
And actually, minutes after he hangs up the phone with me and finishes telling his story, he was actually picked up by the authorities. And he's now doing a four-year bit up in upstate New York. But he's a fascinating character. I mean, Orta, he was a drug dealer. He was a small-time criminal. He freely admits that he did that and has done that his whole life, but that wasn't the - why he was taking that video that day.
It could've been anybody taking that video and - but the police definitely targeted him, and they blamed him for taking that video. And when he was arrested, they said, you know, he took the video on us, now we're taking the video on him. In other words, when there was a perp walk, they felt the sort of triumph that order had been restored.
GROSS: My guest is Matt Taibbi, author of the new book "I Can't Breathe" about the life and death of Eric Garner. He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how Garner made a living selling smuggled cigarettes on the street. We'll also talk about the police officer who choked him and the legal battle that followed. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "MARIE LAVEAU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Matt Taibbi, author of a new book about Eric Garner's life and death called "I Can't Breathe." That's a now-famous phrase he repeated 11 times as he was choked by police on a street in Staten Island in July 2014. I can't breathe became a rallying cry at demonstrations protesting police brutality.
Eric Garner had done prison time in the past for selling crack, and he was determined not to go back to jail for crack. And he needed some kind of income, and that's how he ended up selling loosies, which are loose smuggled cigarettes. Explain how that business works and why it was, you know, a decent business for him, I mean, in terms of the amount of money he was able to make.
TAIBBI: Yeah, so Eric Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes. And the reason he was able to do that is because New York City, during the regime of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, had raised the taxes on cigarettes. And the reason he was able to do that is because New York City, during the regime of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, had raised the taxes on cigarettes to an extraordinary level. I think it was up to $14 a pack at one point. And so what Garner was doing...
GROSS: ...Not the tax but the whole price with the tax.
TAIBBI: The whole price with the tax - exactly. So Garner was essentially engaged in a street arbitrage. He was sending people with cars down to states like Virginia where they were buying packs for about $5 a pack and then driving them up to New York City. And then he would split the difference. He would sell them for about $9 a pack on the street here. If they were loosies, he had a little bit of a mark-up. So they were 50 cents a cigarette. So he was making about 10 bucks a pack at that point.
And this was - it was a great business because of a loophole in the law. It's a misdemeanor if they catch you selling a certain amount of cigarettes. But if you only have a pack or so. And you're only selling loosies, it's not even that. It can be just a ticket. But for our purposes, it's essentially a misdemeanor to sell untaxed cigarettes on the streets of New York. And Garner was fascinated by this because unlike drug dealing where there were these disproportionately harsh penalties, it worked in his favor for once to brag about it. He would say this is felony money, misdemeanor time.
It wasn't until the very end that he was getting busted so often that it started to become a serious problem. And that was part of the factor, part of the subtext to that final day - was that he had been arrested so often in the months leading up to that day that he had had enough at that point.
GROSS: And I think it was in his final arrest. He protested it. And you think that that's one of the reasons why he was targeted the day he died.
TAIBBI: Yeah, he had heard some really good news in his personal life about a week earlier. His son who is a great basketball player had gotten a scholarship to play basketball at a local college. And Garner was immensely proud of this. And he - when he got the letter from the college, he took a picture of it. And he was showing the picture around to everybody on the street. And in the middle of doing that, he got stopped by the cops. This was about a week before he died. And he wasn't - again, he wasn't even selling cigarettes at that moment. And he only had about a pack or two packs in his pocket at that time.
And when the police tried to take him in that day, he refused. He swore. And then he said I'm not going. It's too hot. I think that was the quote that people told me they had heard. And the police left him alone that day. And I think that might have added to the dynamic of what happened on the day of his death because there had already been an incident where he had refused to go when police had ordered him to go to the precinct. But again, in both of those incidents, it was questionable because it was not entirely clear that he was actually selling cigarettes in either of those cases.
GROSS: Officer Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner, had a history of abuse incidents. How did we learn that?
TAIBBI: We learned that because it was leaked. Even though there was a considerable amount of effort that was brought to bear to try to find out what Officer Pantaleo's history had been, this is another one of the idiosyncrasies that I found when I looked into this. It's extremely hard to find out what an officer's history might be or how many complaints there might have been against an individual officer. There's a quirk in the law.
There's a civil rights procedure in this state - Article 58, I believe it is - which that says any information that might pertain to evaluating the performance of a police officer is to be kept private. So even though police officers - everything they do is for the public. They're paid by the public. They're performing a public service. Their actual record is not open to the public. You can't file a Freedom of Information request to find out how many complaints there might have been against an individual officer.
You can't sue if you're a witness in a case where you have questions about whether or not the officer is falsifying evidence or had planted evidence. You can't sue to find out whether there's been an incident like that in the past absent some indication that he's been - he or she has been guilty of that in the past. So it's kind of a black box. The - you know, this is a classic example of how police are protected even when they're problem police. You just - there's no easy way to find out what kind of trouble they might have been in in the past.
GROSS: Eric Holder, who was attorney general at the time that Eric Garner died, announced that there'd be a federal investigation to see if his civil rights were violated. What became of that?
TAIBBI: As far as I know, that investigation is still going on. I heard pretty recently that a grand jury was still active and was still hearing witnesses in the federal civil rights proceeding. The problem is that the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said publicly in February that he doesn't believe in federal civil rights prosecutions of police departments. So you know, I don't know what's going to happen there. It's still theoretically possible that they could bring a federal civil rights case in this matter. But I'll believe it when I see it. I think the family's also skeptical that anything will happen. But it's certainly possible. But the history of this is that it's very rare.
GROSS: So what's Officer Pantaleo doing now?
TAIBBI: He's still on the payroll of the New York City Police Department. There were reports last year that he had actually received overtime in the year that he was on desk duty. So he's still being paid. He's still getting benefits. He's still able to go to a doctor or a psychiatrist on the public dime if he wants to. And he's still in the employ of the NYPD. There is an internal disciplinary proceeding that is going on against him, but that has to wait until the federal civil rights case plays out one way or the other. So we won't know if he will be dismissed or docked vacation days or fined or anything like that until after that case is over.
GROSS: My guest is Matt Taibbi, author of a new book about Eric Garner called "I Can't Breathe." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Matt Taibbi, author of a new book about the life and death of Eric Garner. The title is taken from Garner's last words, "I Can't Breathe."
Garner's daughter Erica became an activist on his behalf after his death, and she told you that she's really angry that Pantaleo is still getting, you know, salary and health care benefits, where she, the daughter of a man who died in the hands of New York City police, gets nothing. I mean, like, if she needs, like, mental health help as a result of this, there's nothing to help her, no support system.
TAIBBI: Right, yeah, exactly. And this was one of the things that they're most bitter about, even though there was a settlement where the family received some compensation from the city. You know, it's very hard for the families of the victims. And Erica, who is a single mother and was deeply affected by her father's death - she leaned on him a lot, emotionally. And if she wanted to, she couldn't - you know, she couldn't go see a doctor on the public dime, but Officer Pantaleo could.
And that was the thing that ate at her a lot during the years after her father's death, the idea that while she was struggling, and grieving and going through all these things, there was no support system there for her. But there was one for the people who worked in the police force. And that's part of the reason that they're so anxious to keep this story in the news and so anxious to - that the public understand, you know, how the victims feel in these instances.
GROSS: How much did she and her family get in the settlement?
TAIBBI: It was, I think, $6 million in the end, you know, split a bunch of ways.
GROSS: So that's not nothing, yeah.
TAIBBI: It's not nothing, no. But there's a critical distinction here to point out, which is that the system is designed so that there's only one remedy that ever takes place in these cases, and that usually means that the family gets an amount of money, either through a federal lawsuit, sometimes through a state lawsuit, but that's it. There's never - almost never any institutional change.
There's rarely any punishment of the officers involved. And the only thing that ever happens is that some of the taxpayers' money goes to a few members of the victim's families, but that's it. And I understand that for a lot of people, they'll look at that number and say, well, that's justice. You know, $6 million isn't nothing. But I think they would trade that in a heartbeat for real structural change that would lead to, you know, this not happening again.
GROSS: What kind of structural change would you like to see in policing?
TAIBBI: I think the biggest thing for me is, I think this statistics-based approach to policing creates an...
GROSS: Explain what you mean by a statistics-based approach.
TAIBBI: So way back in the '70s, and '80s and previously, policing was essentially a reactive concept. In other words, criminals committed crimes, and the police went and either tried to stop them or investigated them. Now the modern theory of policing, which has been made kind of intellectual chic thanks to people like Malcolm Gladwell with theories like broken windows - the whole idea is to affirmatively impose order.
So broken windows is predicated on the idea that if you break a window in a neighborhood, soon, all the other windows in the neighborhood will be broken. So you have to work hard to keep those windows from being broken, so that means cracking down on small offenses. So don't let people jump turnstiles. Don't let people ride their bicycles the wrong way down a sidewalk. Don't let people smoke weed in public. Don't let people urinate in public.
Crack down on these things as hard as you can, and what will happen, eventually, is that you'll get less serious crime. And the tools they use to impose that idea are all about statistics. It's about stopping a certain number of people every month and trying to confiscate a certain number of weapons every month.
And that was one of the things that came out in the lawsuit against policies like stop and frisk in New York - is that officers were actually given a quota. We want you to stop 20 people a month. Want you to seize one gun a month. So cops have to make stats. That's how it works in almost every big city.
They have to pull over or stop, and search and question a certain number of people every month, and they have to seize a certain number of weapons every month, or they're supposed to try, at least, anyway. And the problem with that approach is that it creates this sort of factory-style approach to policing where you're not waiting for real probable cause, and you're just sort of pulling over people willy-nilly over, and over and over again, putting your hands on them, questioning them.
And of course, this only happens in certain neighborhoods and doesn't happen in other neighborhoods. I think most white residents of cities will say that they've never been stopped and approached. So it creates these inequities, but these incentives are the worst part of it. This idea where cops feel like they have to go out and hassle people is the thing that makes these incidents more frequent and more inevitable.
GROSS: But is it true that a lot of residents of the neighborhoods that you're talking about want dealers off the street, don't want people urinating on their sidewalk?
TAIBBI: Absolutely, absolutely. They - there are definitely people who would say that they approve of these methods, but I think if you polled people in those neighborhoods, you would overwhelmingly hear people say that they do not like and approve of these methods because they've - almost everybody that you talk to has had a horrible experience with this kind of policing because it sounds completely harmless on its face.
But here's how it plays out in reality. Like, I talked to one guy who was walking home from school, and a squad car pulls up in front of him. Cops all jump out of the car. They knock him to the ground. They take his backpack. They empty it out in the street. They look through all of its contents. Then they all jump back in the car, and they drive away. And that's a stop and frisk, right?
And this guy was traumatized. They'd left him there, and, like, they didn't even help him get up. Now, if that story is told another way, where, you know, we just stopped and asked this person where he was going, and we checked to see if there were any weapons or drugs in his bag, and then we went on our way, it sounds relatively harmless.
But if you hear it the other way, it's traumatizing. And I think that's the whole difference here. It's a difference of perception. And that's the problem - is that, for most white Americans, we have no conception of how this - these tactics play out.
GROSS: You're white, and Eric Garner's black. The community he lived in was predominantly black. Did being white affect your ability one way or another to get the full story?
TAIBBI: Sure, absolutely. It was harder to get people to trust me, to talk about the story. And as I went on and did the research, I went through periods where I thought to myself, is it even appropriate for me as a white person to tell this story? Maybe I'm the wrong person to be doing this. But as I thought about this, I realized that this is a white story as well as a black story.
The reality is that Eric Garner died at the hands of a police force and a criminal justice system that were designed entirely by white people for the most part. And so this is not just a story about Eric Garner or the neighborhood that he lived in that was predominantly black. It's also a story about the city bureaucracy and the law enforcement apparatus and the criminal justice system, which is a white story as well. So I think it's important for white reporters ultimately to own, you know, some of the responsibility for telling these stories because it's our story, too, in a kind of terrible way.
GROSS: Did you talk to a lot of police officers while reporting this book, and were they willing to talk with you?
TAIBBI: I tried to talk to a lot of police officers during the course of this research, and for obvious reasons, none of the officers who were involved in this case would or could talk. You know, they're still awaiting the adjudication of the federal case. So they can't talk, and even their lawyers can't talk. But I talked to - I did talk to a lot of cops. A few of them, you know, allowed me to use their names. But most of them were off the record. And they gave me some perspective on their view of things.
And that's part of the reason I think that the book - I tried not to make it this sort of broadside against the police. I genuinely believe that the police are in - somewhat in an impossible position. They're kind of forced into engaging in activities that they otherwise wouldn't because of the statistical imperatives. And they hate it as much as some of the people that they're arresting hate it. So I hope that came through in the book.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Taibbi, and he's the author of the new book "I Can't Breathe," which is the story of Eric Garner's life and death and the legal proceedings after. He's also a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Matt Taibbi. He's a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and author of the new book "I Can't Breathe," which is about the life and death of Eric Garner.
I'm going to change the subject a little bit. So I have a style question I want to ask you.
GROSS: I'm forgetting exactly what the headline was, but when you wrote about Goldman Sachs, blood sucking vampire comes to mind.
GROSS: What was the headline? Do you remember?
TAIBBI: Yeah. It was actually in the - in the piece, it was a great - I described them as a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. I think that was the phrase.
GROSS: Yeah. I think that was the one I was thinking of (laughter).
GROSS: OK, so, like, very colorful, very lively, very opinionated. Comparing that to your book about Eric Garner, which is, you know, a deeply reported book without that kind of language in it - I mean, like, you're telling the facts. There's a point of view. I mean, but you're not using that kind of hyperbolic, colorful language.
GROSS: And I'm just wondering about the difference between those two styles and when you use one and when you use the other.
TAIBBI: Well, I think when you're talking about the financial services industry and you're trying to get people interested in learning about what a credit default swap is and what a collateralized debt obligation is and all those things, you have to pull out all the stops stylistically to try to get people interested. And that means using fiction writing techniques and storytelling techniques and using flamboyant language and humor and everything you can possibly do. And you have to make white hats and black hats. You have to make - create characters so that people can follow all the drama. All those things are necessary, especially if you're going to do it in print and at great length.
And so when I was covering Wall Street, yeah, I used all those techniques. When I'm covering Eric Garner, that was a story that, you know, pretty quickly became apparent to me that this was not something that required a, you know, comic approach. I think it's - the reporting and the facts speak for themselves. And that's - I think it would have been insulting and maybe even disrespectful on my part to have brought, you know, the same kind of approach to the story. So I tried to tell an unvarnished story without all those affectations in this case.
GROSS: Is there a danger that if you simplify things to white hats and black hats in a financial kind of story to make it more comprehensible and more lively that you risk, like, being reductionist and oversimplifying and, you know, losing any ambiguity or complication that exists?
TAIBBI: Yeah, there is that - there is that threat, but I very carefully chose the stories that I wrote about. And when I covered Wall Street, I picked the most unambiguously horrible cases that I could find. And so when I was describing the people who were behind this or that caper, it wasn't a question - there weren't that many philosophical arguments that really could be brought to bear. I mean, when I'm writing about HSBC and they're laundering $850 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels and they're admitting this in print, you know, I don't think - I'm not feeling a whole lot of hesitation about throwing the black hat on those characters in that case.
In the subprime mortgage fraud cases, one of the things that I think was the problem with the reporting on the financial crisis is that people didn't understand it because reporters were afraid to call the people who did - who were engaged in these practices bad guys, but they were. It was a simple theft scheme that wasn't much different from, you know, if you're walking down the street in a city like New York and you see, you know, a phony Prada handbag or a phony Rolex watch on sale, you know, on a mat on the street. That was essentially what was going on during the subprime period. They were selling phony mortgages to people. And so it was important, I think, to simplify it for people and make people understand that this is a crime story, not an economic story. And so I chose the cases that were - where it was possible to use that approach.
GROSS: So you've just written this new book about Eric Garner's life and how he died at the hands of police. You've also covered white-collar crime that has happened on Wall Street, financial crimes. Are you struck by the differences in how the white-collar financial crimes and selling smuggled cigarettes on the street are dealt with?
TAIBBI: Absolutely. Yeah, no, I think that's a preoccupation of mine. That's how I came to the story in the first place is because years and years ago - I think it was 2010, 2011 - the few of us who in the media who were covering the fallout of the financial crisis from a criminal perspective who were waiting for indictments to be handed down for things like subprime mortgage fraud or money laundering or bribery or any of the many things that went on before 2008 that led to the crash, when we started to notice that nobody was getting indicted, there became a preoccupation - at least on my behalf - of trying to understand why that was. Why weren't we bringing cases against these rich and powerful people?
And the flip side of that question is, well, if we're not - if we're not bringing cases against these people, who are we sending to jail? You know, why - if we have two and a half million people in the prison system in America and none of them are the people who are responsible for this mess, who are these people? And why - and how easy is it for somebody to get to jail? So that led me to write a book called "The Divide." And that's how I learned a lot about community policing, and that's how I got interested in the Garner case I think to begin with. So yes, absolutely.
I mean, that's one of the ironies of the Garner case is that you would never see a law enforcement officer actually put his hands on an offender in the white-collar crime arena, even someone who was guilty of the worst kinds of offenses. But in Garner's case, where he hadn't actually even done anything that day, they had no compunction about jumping on top of him, putting him in a chokehold. So the dichotomy is really stark. And it's much more important - it makes it much worse than it would be in a vacuum, you know? If you compare it to how people are treated in this other arena, it's even more horrifying.
GROSS: Matt Taibbi, thank you so much for talking with us.
TAIBBI: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Matt Taibbi's new book about Eric Garner is called "I Can't Breathe." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how climate change, rising sea levels and extreme weather are affecting American cities. My guests will be Jeff Goodell, the author of "The Water Will Come." He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has covered climate change for 15 years. We'll also talk about how the Trump administration is rolling back regulations that were designed to slow climate change. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. And we're really happy to welcome our new associate producer Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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