Nine Months After He Filmed Eric Garner's Killing, the Cops Are Trying to Put Ramsey Orta Behind Bars
"At first I didn't think it would blow up this big," Ramsey Orta told me. He was describing the video he took of his friend Eric Garner being killed by the NYPD. His voice was nearly too soft to hear.
I interviewed Orta on April 10, nine months after Officer Daniel Pantaleo had choked Eric Garner to death in front of Staten Island's Bay Beauty Supply. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but Orta, his supporters say, has been the target of a police campaign to destroy his life ever since.
When I spoke to him, he was at the tail end of a two-month stint on Rikers Island, locked up on $100,000 bail and awaiting trial for drug charges. Orta is 23 years old and slight, with sharp cheekbones that his time in Rikers had made almost disturbingly prominent. Terrified of being poisoned, he'd been living off of pre-packaged commissary food since he entered jail. The fear is better founded than you might think—19 prisoners in Orta's unit are suing the city over pellets of rat poison they allege guards planted in their meatloaf.
Rikers seems an unlikely destination for perhaps the most important citizen journalist of the last year. But though the video Orta shot was shared around the world, he stayed right where he was, a young, working-class Latino man in Staten Island. Anyone in circumstances like those would be vulnerable to police harassment—and doubly so when you make it your business to watch and record the cops and their abuses.
Born in Manhattan, Ramsey Orta moved with his family to Tompkinsville, Staten Island, when he was 13. He lived with his mom, stocked shelves at the local deli, and spent his free time taking his kid brother to the park and helping raise the daughter he'd had at 19. Like many men of color in heavily policed neighborhoods, he'd had his share of arrests. Most were for minor violations, like turnstile-jumping, but a few of the charges were more serious. When he was still a teenager, he plea-bargained to a felony.
Around 2010, Orta became friendly with Eric Garner. Garner was, in Orta's words, "a neighborhood dad," a 40-something grandfather who sold loose cigarettes after his health problems forced him to stop working as a landscaper. A generous, protective, and well-liked man, Garner loved to buy treats for Orta's kid. But Garner's informal cigarette business, illegal under state law, made him an easy target for police, and he had been arrested dozens of times. In 2007, he filed a handwritten complaint from Rikers, alleging he'd been sexually assaulted by police during a strip search.
Though a judge later dismissed Garner's lawsuit, accusations of sexual violence on the part of NYPD officers during arrests are disturbingly common. Pantaleo has been the subject of multiple lawsuits for misconduct, and in January 2014 the city paid a total of $30,000 to two men who said they had been strip-searched and had their genitals slapped in the middle of the street by Pantaleo and other officers.