Documentary, News

Dead on a sidewalk, martyred online

Eric Garner

As Eric Garner choked to death on a street in New York, his friend Ramsey Orta took out his camera phone. Now in jail on drug charges, Orta's simple act of documentary sparked global protests. Ciaran Thapar reports.

On 17 July 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York Police Officer.

Footage of the event, shot on the camera phone of Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend, was shared online millions of times within a handful of hours, and Garner’s death energised a nationwide debate about police brutality and institutional racism that continues today.

In the days following the video’s circulation, Deputy Photo Editor of TIME magazine Paul Moakley managed to track down Orta, 22, who still held the last moments of his friend, an unarmed father of six, in his hand.

“Since I started at TIME, it’s been ingrained in me to get the full story behind any picture,” Moakley says. “I realised no one had talked in depth to Ramsey, so I thought it would be useful to let him tell the story.”

Moakley, who lives a few blocks away from where the tragedy took place on Staten Island, encouraged Orta to recall the event, editing his words over sections of the Garner footage and two other videos of aggressive police behaviour Orta had witnessed and saved. “I see his eyes roll back, and he was foaming from the mouth, and I knew he was gone from there,” Orta says.

Just shy of four minutes in length, the video recently earned Moakley first prize in the Short Feature category at the World Press Photo Multimedia awards.

“It’s interesting, because a lot of people still haven’t seen the original footage,” Moakley tells BJP. “My main aim was to get more people to watch and really understand what happened. The video is such a rare document; it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Orta’s steady hand on the camera whilst he filmed the deadly confrontation with Garner shares parallels to that of John F. Kennedy’s assassination back in 1963. “It’s the same instinct of recognizing something important and capturing it,” Moakley says.

Of course, the speed at which images can be disseminated has changed drastically since then. “It was years before the public saw the original video of Kennedy being killed,” he says. “Now, there is a shocking freshness when you see the footage of such an incident right after it’s happened, whether it’s the public execution of a soldier in London, or the videos ISIS have been releasing.”

Part of the power of these directly sourced videos is held in the airtight nature of what they show; the unambiguous scope for viewer interpretation. “These sort of documents need presenting in a clear, no-frills way so people have space to process them away from news outlets that can be more sensational,” Moakley says.

“It was such a volatile moment between the police and public. The knee-jerk reaction was to go around blaming all police officers. I didn’t want to do that or create more outrage. I hope something changes out of what happened to Eric Garner.”

In December, over four months after the incident, a grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer responsible for using the chokehold on Garner, which is banned by the NYPD. Garner’s last words have also become repurposed: “We can’t breathe” is now a rallying cry for protesters demanding to know how and why such a decision was reached.

“The distinct thing about the Eric Garner case is that he barely resists – you can see, he doesn’t even throw a punch. He’s just frustrated at being harassed,” Moakley says. “I’ve since talked to a lot of local people and character witnesses and everyone was very consistent in what they said about him. He was a very friendly local figure.”

Ramsey Orta is now in jail, facing drug and firearm charges relating to an arrest made last August according to the Staten Island Advance, in an area near where Garner died known for its drug-related activity. He is not likely to be given a hearing for months.

In an interview with The Advance, Orta claims the charges against him are a retaliatory measure for his involvement in the Garner case. “When they searched me, they didn’t find nothing on me,” Orta said. “And the same cop that searched me, he told me clearly himself, that karma’s a bitch, what goes around comes around.”

“There is really something to be said about putting a camera in a police officer’s face,” Moakley says. “It’s a form of defence. You aren’t just recording them, you’re trying to get them to stop and think. Ramsey was doing just that whilst documenting what goes on in his neighborhood. Really, all credit should go to him.”

Follow Paul Moakley @paulmoakley and learn more about the World Press Photo Multimedia award.