Cannabis angle emerges in Eric Garner case

Posted on October 4th, 2016 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , .

New York CityThe case of Eric Garner—the Staten Island man killed in a police chokehold in July 2014, helping to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement—continues to make headlines in New York City. In the latest development, reported in the Daily News Oct. 3, Ramsey Orta, the man who shot video footage of Garner's final moments, was sentenced to four years in prison on drug charges. The reading of the sentence was apparently a dramtic moment. As officers placed Orta in handcuffs, protesters stood up in the courtroom, holding their fists in the air and chanting, "No justice, no peace! Fuck these racist police!"

Since filming NYPD cop Daniel Pantaleo place Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014, Orta has had several run-ins with the law—which his supporters say is police retaliation. Orta said in July he was "tired of fighting" and would plead guilty to sale of a controlled substance and criminal possession of a weapon. In an earlier video interview aired by the News, Orta complained that the grand jury called in the Garner case failed to bring back charges against Pantaleo despite viewing his video footage. And now he is going to prison—possibly as retribution for bringing evidence against Pantaleo.

"Ramsey filmed Eric's last words, and that's how my child will hear his voice," said Jewel Miller, the mother of Eric Garner's youngest child, who attended the sentencing. "Ramsey Orta is a young boy. He's just getting into adulthood. He's just becoming a man and it's really sad.”.

Authorities charged Orta with having sold heroin, crack, cannabis and oxycodone to an undercover officer. He was also busted with a handgun, bringing an additional charge.

Making it all even more perverse is the fact that Pantaleo is still on the beat. The Daily News reported back in April that Pantaleo was disciplined by the NYPD—but not for his role in Garner's death. Pantaleo, still waiting to find out if he'll face federal civil rights charges in the Garner case, was docked two vacation days for a bogus stop-and-frisk. The NYPD found he was guilty of conducting an unnecessary frisk, although cleared him of charges that the stop was unjustified.

And Politico New York now reports that Pantaleo—despite being placed on modified duty following Garner's death—increased his overtime pay last year by 35%, earning nearly $120,000 in total over the last fiscal year.

Now, heroin and crack are definitely dangerous substances—whether or not Orta was really guilty of selling them. Arguably, their illegal status just makes them more dangerous and ubiquitous—driving up their price, with the trade in these substances filling the economic vaccuum in urban (and rural) areas hit hard by the flight of legal jobs. But cannabis is no more dangerous than many perfectly legal substances, like tobacco and alcohol—indeed,a good deal less dangerous. Yet, despite gains in legalization and normalization of the herb, the cannabis stigma continues to be exploited in a propaganda system that legitimizes state violence against the oppressed and excluded. Note that cannabis was also at issue in the recent police slaying of a Black man in Charlotte, NC.

In the national protests over the ongoing police brutality outrages, demonstrators have started to make larger political connections—for instance, protests have linked the Eric Garner case to the apparent police massacre of college students at Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The UN human rights commissioner has also made note of the Garner case, and a UN panel recently called on the US to make reparations for ongoing "racial terrorsim" against African Americans. It is increasingly inescapable that the country faces a human rights crisis of international proportions.

It would be a big step forward if the Black Lives Matter protesters would explicitly recognize the "war on drugs" as an integral part of the matrix of oppression. And, conversely, if cannabis legalization advocates would recognize that their issue is not only one of individual liberites—but linked to larger questions of human rights and racial justice.

Cross-post to High Times.



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