Orta and Eric Garner were deciding where to eat when the police approached. Orta immediately raised his cellphone and hit record. He’d been doing that a lot lately. Many living in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island felt they lived under constant surveillance by the 120th Precinct. Orta and Garner had often talked about how just leaving their homes meant expecting to be followed, stopped, searched. Orta knew from experience that anything could happen during these interactions. And so for him, it had become a form of self-defense to film the police.
Orta’s video — soon to be seen by the world — showed Garner trying to explain that he’d done nothing wrong. Then a police officer wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck, gripping him in a chokehold until he collapsed. The video showed Garner saying eleven times that he couldn’t breathe. It showed the officers ignoring Garner’s distress, pushing his head into the pavement, letting him lose consciousness there, die there.
Now, near midnight, Orta was in his apartment, the door locked behind him. His house was dark. His family was asleep. He went to the window, looking for the black Crown Vic that had tailed him as he’d walked home. He checked the security of the locks on the door, then checked again. He got into bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. Images from the day swirled above on his dark ceiling.
The police killed my friend, he thought.
Suddenly, Orta’s bedroom filled with light. Disoriented, he wondered if he’d fallen asleep without realizing it and had woken to the dawn. He rose. It wasn’t daylight but a spotlight blasting his home from outside. The metal bars on his windows cast back on him as a grid of shadows. He ran out to the street and saw police cars parked in front of his house, the silhouettes of faceless officers watching.
They’re here for me, Orta thought, because I have proof of what happened.
Orta believed the video would guarantee justice for his friend. He would be wrong. The officer who choked Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, would not be indicted by a grand jury. But in the weeks to come, the footage of Garner’s killing would travel far and wide, and the haunting echoes of “I Can’t Breathe” would become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, a phrase emblazoned across the chest of LeBron James, a lasting reminder of a plea for help ignored.
Someone will have to pay for this, Orta thought, looking at his phone, not realizing that someone would be him, not knowing that the cops would exact their revenge through a campaign of targeted harassment, that within a year he’d be in prison and facing constant abuse, his enduring punishment for daring to hold the police accountable. But looking out into the final dark minutes of July 17th, 2014, watching the police cars drive away, Orta believed he held an important key that would bring justice, one that would force change.
There is no way to ignore this video, he thought. And he felt something close to hope.