Ramsey 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.
A cloth backdrop covered in faded pink hearts hangs on one wall of the prison’s visiting room. It’s February, a few days before Valentine’s Day. Over the year I spend visiting Ramsey Orta, I see many families pose for pictures in front of these backdrops, which always display cartoonish renderings of idyllic scenes — a lakeside picnic, a Christmas hearth, a clean and gleaming cityscape.
Deja, Orta’s girlfriend, walks immediately to an ancient vending machine in the corner. The thunk of her falling quarters echoes in the nearly empty visiting room. She had been stiff with anxiety for much of our six-hour drive from Staten Island to the Gouverneur prison facility. She makes this trip each weekend to see Orta, but this visit would be different. He is serving a 60-day sentence in the facility’s Security Housing Unit (solitary confinement), which means his visiting privileges are limited. He will be shackled and kept behind a metal screen instead of being able to hug Deja, hold her hand, and sit with her at a table.
“I just can’t see him in chains,” she tells me. “I need to keep my mental image of him positive, to believe he’s OK.”
In tone and temperament, Deja is gentle. I rarely hear her speak above a whisper. On the drive, she’d told me about her on-again, off-again five-year relationship with Orta. After every fight, every breakup, they’d found their way to forgiveness and now she was committed to “doing his time with him.” But the commitment is difficult. Public transportation from New York City to upstate prisons is scarce, forcing Deja and others in her situation to take often unreliable, crowded passenger vans that drive visitors through the night. The stress of the trip can cause symptoms related to Deja’s multiple sclerosis to flare, leaving her bedridden and in pain for days. But the hardest part of her commitment to Orta is her fear of the phone ringing and someone on the other end telling her he is dead. Orta has reported constant abuse and harassment from correctional officers since he’s been locked up. He claims he’s been threatened, beaten, poisoned. He and Deja both live in the constant fear that he’ll never return home.
At night, Deja dreams she’s arrived at the visiting room just as Orta is being killed; in the dream she can see it happening, can hear him call for her. Awake and asleep, she is worried. She has a habit of adding, to the end of painful statements, the phrase “But it is what it is.”
I ask her about this and she shrugs, then whispers, “No other way to get through this shit.”
We hear a voice say, “My girl.”
Deja doesn’t turn around but smiles and jams more quarters into the vending machine, faster now, punching buttons, piling food on a nearby table.
I know this voice, too. I’d heard it rise from behind the camera at the beginning of the Garner video to say, “Once again, police beating up on people.” At first that voice is weary, resigned — the scene he’s capturing is his everyday life. But it quickly changes, fills with concern, when Garner falls. Orta whispers, “He can’t breathe.”
Orta, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and an African American father, stands framed by a window of cross-hatched metal bars. He is cuffed at the wrists and ankles, smiling. Orta is shockingly thin. His cheekbones jut from his pale gray skin. His hair — buzzed short in pictures from before his arrest — sticks wildly from his head in clumps.
The guard who led him out says, “Jesus, Orta, couldn’t find a comb?”
“You won’t let me tie it up!” Orta replies.
Orta calls for Deja again. He looks sidewise at the correctional officers, and when he is sure they aren’t looking, he puckers his lips to fit them through the iron grid separating him from her, and they kiss. Soon she is back at the vending machine.
“She always does this,” he tells me. “I won’t eat in here, so she’s worried I’m starving.” The circles around his eyes are so dark, the whites of his eyes shine as if from the bottom of a hole.
“Do you want a sandwich?” Deja asks him. The only time she can be certain he’s eating is when she buys his food herself during visits. He agrees to a burger, and she buys three. They are dispensed frozen and I offer to heat them in the microwave, wanting to give Orta and Deja a minute alone.
A correctional officer approaches and tells me the microwave is broken. I see its power cord pulled from the wall and jammed behind a toaster. I plug it in, push a few buttons, and it buzzes to life.
“I told you it’s broken,” the CO says.
I’d crossed an invisible line. The door of the microwave reflects back our distorted image. I can see the CO standing behind me, waiting.
When I return with the still-frozen burgers, Orta explains: “They fuck with my food. They know I won’t eat what they give me, not since Rikers.”
In February 2015, Orta had been arrested and sent to Rikers Island. At intake, everyone knew his name. He told me the COs taunted him about the Garner video. “You’re ours now,” he claims they said. “Not so tough without your camera.”
The threats continued. When his cell block was put on lockdown, his anxiety spiked. Lockdown meant Orta was restricted from participating in the preparation of his own food. On March 3rd, 2015, Orta’s cell block was served a meal of corn, cabbage, bread, juice, and meatloaf. He didn’t touch it. He’d fallen ill a few times after eating the food at Rikers and was convinced he was being targeted and poisoned.
“Eat, inmate,” a CO commanded, banging Orta’s cell with a baton. The guards were all standing too close, watching too intently as the others ate. This kind of attention was unusual. He saw others from his cell block staring down into their meatloaf, forks frozen in midair.
“We’re not going anywhere until you eat,” a CO said and entered Orta’s cell. He hit Orta with his baton, hurled slurs, promised a citation for refusing orders. “How many days in SHU you want?”
Orta rattles his chair as he tells me this part of the story. “He tried to bend me up,” he says, then shows me how, miming his arms being twisted behind his back.
Some of the prisoners had eaten everything quickly, and now they had strange looks on their faces. Orta could see a man in a nearby cell. He opened his mouth and Orta leaned forward to hear what he had to say, but instead of words, blood flowed from the man’s parted lips. He was vomiting blood. Others were vomiting blood; some were on the floor of their cells, clawing at their own bodies.
Later, in depositions, the affected would say their stomachs were on fire. Some felt pain in their chests and worried they were having heart attacks. Others were so dizzy they couldn’t stand. They writhed on the floor of their cells. Some claimed the guards walked by, watching, laughing, flipping them all the bird. The stench of vomit and feces permeated the cell.
No one was taken to the infirmary. Orta had wrapped up his meatloaf in a napkin, hoping it could be tested for the poison he was certain was there. When he looked closely at the meatloaf, he saw the top was a speckled bluish-green.
Court documents filed six days later alleged that the prisoners had suffered and continued to suffer from “nausea, vomiting, pain, dizziness, aches, headaches, stomach/intestinal pains, dehydration, diarrhea, nosebleeds, throwing up blood, diarrhea with blood, and/or an overwhelming sense of illness.” The symptoms were consistent with human consumption of rat poison, and when the tainted meatloaf was finally tested, the results found that the blue-green pellets visible in the meatloaf were brodifacoum, the active ingredient in rodenticide.
After this, Orta stopped eating. He refuses to eat anything other than what has been sent in packages from Deja or is available in his commissary. Deja tells me packages are often returned to her ripped open with items destroyed or missing.
Orta claims he is constantly ticketed by the COs for petty or falsified offenses. One night he was having stomach troubles and requested a pass from the facility’s nurse to sleep on the bottom bunk, to be closer to the toilet. A CO woke him and ordered him to sleep on the top bunk. Orta explained that he had a sick pass, and the CO wrote him up for disobeying a direct order. Tickets like these trigger the loss of privileges, like the ability to receive outside packages of food. Or worse: the ticket that had landed him 60 days in solitary was for smoking a cigarette in the wrong part of the prison.
Orta says he’s been threatened, called racist names, beaten. He talks about these incidents in a measured, almost casual way. He’s been locked up before and possesses fluency in a prison’s violent rhythms. But there’s one form of harassment he describes at length and with visceral anguish. In the process of inspecting his cell, the COs routinely crush to dust his Pop-Tarts, chips, ramen packets. This is the food Deja sends him, the only food he feels safe eating.
“You understand?” he says. “They know this is how to kill me, by getting me to kill myself.”
On August 2nd, 2014 — the day after the New York chief medical examiner officially ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide — Ramsey Orta was running errands. He was a few blocks from his house, passing the Hotel Richmond, when a van pulled up beside him. Bodies tumbled from the van, rapidly approaching Orta with cameras. He’d been in the media a lot recently. He’d given interviews and had been photographed at protests and vigils, joining many others in the public grief and outrage in the weeks following Garner’s death. He was seen by some as a hero, whose lens had captured a horrific but galvanizing injustice. Many people had taken his picture.
But the men in the van were not reporters. Orta heard a sneering laugh and a voice say, “Smile, motherfucker.” They surrounded Orta, holding cell phones inches from his face, filming him. Then they pulled his hands behind his back and arrested him.
This is the way Orta tells the story, in the impressionistic language of trauma. He tells me he dreams that he’s been released from prison and is walking in the daylight when suddenly bodies burst toward him from the shadows, engulfing him. He’s drowning in them, suffocating, trying to claw his way out. It’s hard to know how much the reality he remembers is melded with the nightmares.
The NYPD report paints a different picture. It claims that officers were staking a known drug location. They observed Orta briefly enter and then exit the Hotel Richmond with a young woman, seventeen-year-old Alba Lekaj. When the officers approached, they saw Orta stuffing a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol down Lekaj’s pants. The gun recovered from the scene had no bullets, no clip, and no fingerprints. It had been reported stolen in Michigan in 2007.
Marijuana was found hidden in Lekaj’s bra and, in his telling, Orta admits quickly to selling to Lekaj and moves on. It isn’t the important part of the story. Orta never attempts to portray himself as a squeaky-clean victim. He’d been arrested for selling marijuana and pills before. He’d also been arrested, then released for selling fake MDMA to an undercover cop. Drugs had been around his whole life, he says.
“My grandfather and grandmother sold coke until the day they died. They ran prostitutes who stayed with us sometimes.” He recalls the women chasing him when he was a boy, threatening to pull down his pants to see if he was hung like his grandfather. He remembers that the apartment was always crowded, with strangers appearing at all hours, disappearing in back rooms, reemerging somehow changed. This was normal to him. It took him until he was a teen to understand exactly what he’d been born into. And then he started selling drugs himself. He’d moved PCP on Staten Island for a while, but quit after he’d tried it himself a few times with bad results.
“I like weed, I like ecstasy. That’s it now,” he says. “Nothing else.”
Orta’s family moved to Staten Island when he was thirteen. Before that, he grew up in the Baruch Housing Projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a kid, he played sports at the Boys’ Club on Pitt Street. One summer he hurt his back during a swimming competition. It seized completely and he couldn’t move. He began to sink and was certain he would drown. There were so many kids in the pool, he didn’t think anyone would notice him on the bottom. Someone from the crowd jumped fully clothed into the pool to pull Orta out. His mother gave him Vicodin for the pain, and when the pain subsided, an addiction had bloomed in its place.
“I lost the summer that way, on Vicodin,” he says. Orta was nine years old. He started taking other pain pills, mixing them with Seroquel, which he’d been prescribed to treat his depression and mood disorder.
When he was ten, members of the Bloods recruited him into petty thefts. He was small and could kick out window air conditioning units and squeeze through the space they left. For a while, he tried to stay out of trouble by spending all his free time in the safety of the Boys’ Club, but it shut down in 2003 when Orta was eleven. When his family moved to Staten Island, he didn’t move with them. He was locked up in Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, a facility so notorious for detainee abuse that it was forced to close forever in 2011.
I ask him how he’d ended up in Spofford. “I brought a knife to school and held it to some kid’s neck,” he says.
Why? Had he threatened you?
“Nah, I never got bullied because I was a Blood. I’ve just always had one of those short-guy complexes. I used to think I had to let everyone know what I was about. So, no, that kid never messed with me. I just put my knife on him.” Orta was 13.
In Spofford, he learned skills that help him to survive in prison.
“You learn how to fight with the tools you’ve got,” he says. “Like, there’s one hot pot in the kitchen that boils water. If someone is fucking with you, you fill it with baby oil and throw it at them.”
Why baby oil?
He looks at me incredulously, my lack of imagination further proof of my privilege.
“Hot water will burn you,” he says. “But baby oil sticks to you, and when you try to wipe it off, your skin comes off, too.”
“Look, the point is, I’m smart about certain things. I’ve been on the streets doing my dirt for a long time,” he says. “So you have to understand how ridiculous this gun charge is. There’s no chance I’m dumb enough to give a girl a gun out in the open like that. The cops had been following me every day since Eric died, shining lights in my house every night. You think I’m walking around with a stolen gun that now they say wasn’t even loaded?”
Orta says that when he was arrested on the gun charge, the officers told him it would be better to kill himself before they locked him up with their people. At the station, he began to have a panic attack and had to be taken to the Richmond hospital for a psych evaluation. There was a phone call to his mother, allegedly from the hospital, telling her that he was a suicide risk.
But Orta believes that the call was really from the 120th Precinct, that they’d allowed him to go to the hospital to establish a paper trail, so that when they killed him, they could make it look like a suicide. Orta posted bail, and as soon as he returned home, he made a video saying that if he died, do not believe that he’d done it himself, and know it was murder.
Orta posted bail and pleaded “not guilty” on the gun charges. In the early morning hours of February 10th, 2015, Orta’s apartment was raided. The police stated they had months-old recordings of him selling drugs to an undercover cop. They held that they’d captured nine sales, a charge that came with the possible sentence of ten years per sale.
For a police department claiming not to be targeting Orta for his filming of Garner’s death, they sure brought it up a lot. New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick J. Lynch released a statement saying: “the arrest of Ramsey Orta for criminal possession of a firearm only underscores the dangers that brought police officers to respond to a chronic crime condition in that community. Sadly, in the effort to keep neighborhoods like Tompkinsville safe, a tragedy occurred. But that doesn’t change the fact that police officers routinely risk their lives for the benefit of the community and that they have earned their support and understanding.”
At his arraignment in Staten Island for the drug charges, an anonymous police source told the Daily News, “He took the video, now we took the video.”
The police claimed to also have Orta’s mother, Emily Mercado, on film aiding in the drug sales. She was also arrested in the February raid. At the arraignment, Mercado was traumatized, weeping. Orta was never shown the video and had initially wanted to fight the charges, but when the DA offered him a plea deal that included dropping all charges against his mother, he took it.
“She’d die in here,” he says. “But me, I know how to do the time. I’ve been locked up my whole life.”
Video was supposed to be a solution. If people didn’t believe that police brutality existed, you could record it — the technology was in everybody’s pocket. How could a jury deny proof, an act of killing? And yet they did.
In New York state, a grand jury returns a true bill of indictment if a bare majority — 12 of the 23 sitting jurors — believes there’s enough evidence to proceed to a criminal trial. Daniel Pantaleo’s grand jury sat for nine weeks. Ramsey Orta was the first of 50 witnesses to testify. His video, along with the medical examiner’s report, provided clear evidence that Pantaleo had used an illegal chokehold on Garner. A “chokehold” is defined in the NYPD patrol guide as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe,” which hinders breathing. Orta’s video showed that Pantaleo had continued to apply pressure to Garner’s windpipe after Garner was on the ground, subdued, and had repeatedly said that he couldn’t breathe. Still, the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.
The ruling further reinforced the reality of the tremendous authority police officers have to determine a necessary use of force. Barely a week prior, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. A year later, a grand jury would come to the same decision in regard to Timothy Loehmann, the officer who — after only two seconds on the scene — shot and killed an unarmed black child, Tamir Rice. No charges were brought against the officers involved in Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge. Officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the death of Philando Castile, only to be acquitted. The trials for the Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial and more acquittals.
In 2014, President Obama requested millions in federal grants to fund the expansion of body-worn cameras for on-duty police officers. The move was supported by many across the political spectrum as a chance to improve transparency and accountability in law enforcement and to ease tensions between police and the communities they’re tasked to protect. But President Obama was smart enough to know that more video — more proof — wasn’t going to fix anything. “There is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it’s not a panacea,” he warned.
In 2015, Officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop. Tensing claimed that he “feared for his life” after DuBose started his car and began to drive away with Tensing’s arm caught through the driver’s window. His bodycam footage directly contradicted this account. He was indicted, but the charges were dismissed. In 2017, Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, despite police video showing Crutcher with his hands up in compliance. When asked why she fired her weapon, Shelby said, “I feared for my life.”
In 2016, jurors were shown bodycam footage that clearly depicted Milwaukee resident Sylville K. Smith running from police. Cornered, Smith gave up the chase, threw his gun over a fence, and put his hands up in surrender. Then police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown shot Smith, killing him. The defense attorney told the jury Heaggan-Brown acted out of fear for his life. The jury found the officer not guilty.
After Pantaleo’s trial concluded, Esaw Snipes, Eric’s widow, said, “There’s no doubt in my mind or the mind of all the people out there in the world. What we saw in that video cannot be disputed. How they disputed it, I don’t know.”
Why is video evidence not enough in any of these cases? How is it that we can argue and erase what can be plainly seen with our own eyes? History has repeatedly given us the answer: America’s protected ideal is power, not justice. State power is consolidated by maintaining the authority to determine what counts as an appropriate use of force. For police, this near-total authority is protected by our judicial system.
In 1989, the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor established a “reasonableness standard,” which is a powerful weapon of defense for police in excessive-force cases. The case involved Dethorne Graham, a black man from North Carolina, who had suffered a broken foot and other injuries after police officers mistook his diabetic shock for drunken belligerence. Conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s delivered opinion put forth the precedent that the Fourth Amendment be used to determine whether “officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.” When evaluating the reasonableness of the action taken, one must take into consideration that police officers are “often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”
Jurors in excessive-force cases now are given explicit instructions to think from “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” keeping in mind that the nature of police work requires these “split-second decisions.” When the officer testifies that they acted out of fear for their lives, the Graham v. Connor decision requires jurors to try on that alleged fear and to view the incident through the eyes of the officer, not the victim. This is a powerfully empathetic, imaginative act.
Humans are inherently, psychologically motivated to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and fewer things will create more painful cognitive dissonance than watching those sworn to protect shoot and kill a civilian who posed no threat to them. Our minds protect us, often without our realizing it, by latching on to narratives that can reconcile such tragic opposing facts. It is easier to see the victims as one-dimensional criminals, threatening the fearful police, and therefore deserving of whatever comes their way.
And so it becomes easy — for jurors and the public alike — to trust authority and leave the dead confined to the margins of our imagination. The victims are gone. They can’t testify. They can’t tell us of their fear for their lives.
Via New York’s Freedom of Information Law, I’m able to review the records of Orta’s citations and grievances filed while he was in custody. The stack follows a conspicuous pattern. Orta is cited for petty offenses until the number of tickets triggers the loss of privileges, including access to phone calls or the commissary, often for 25 or 30 days. As soon as the penalty expires and his privileges are restored, the ticketing cycle begins again.
“What you’re seeing with Ramsey — the incessant petty tickets — that is not something that we see frequently. That happens to people who are specifically targeted,” says Adriano De Gennaro of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. “However, falsified tickets, inflated charges, petty tickets, that’s par for the course. The State Department of Corrections uses tickets as a cudgel against people who are in custody. But the sustained pattern of these petty tickets is at least somewhat unique to Ramsey.”
No matter how minimal the charge may be, these citations accumulate to devastating effect. Multiple tickets can mean a loss of Good Time, which can push back release. Orta has lost his earliest release date, extending his sentence by a minimum of six months.
De Gennaro’s colleague Dori Lewis adds, “When investigations happen in response to grievances or claims of harassment, those investigations are conducted by security staff at the prison. Basically they’ll consist of asking the officer, ‘Hey, did you do this?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, I didn’t’ and that’s it. Investigation closed. Sometimes the grievances never even get submitted.”
Orta’s grievances have all been denied. He lists the names of dozens of other prisoners as witnesses to his harassment, but the official forms claim they all refused to participate in the grievance process.
“When the witnesses ‘refuse,’” Lewis says, “it’s hard to know if they were ever asked or if they refused out of the fear that if you testify against correctional staff that you’ll be harassed next.”
Grievances can be appealed to the superintendent of the facility, and in turn to higher-ups in Albany. But it’s unlikely that a new investigation would occur. The grievances are kicked back to the facility, and sometimes the staff in charge of investigating the incidents are the same ones involved in the incident. It’s a closed circle, a clenched fist.
Orta wrote a letter to Mary Vann, the superintendent of his new facility in Altona, New York. “Please help me,” he wrote. “I fear it will only get worse and my well-being might be in danger.”
The same day, I received an email from Deja to Orta’s remaining support system: “This is just overwhelming. I don’t know what to do. I feel at this point I just am drained… He wants to be in protective custody. Ramsey is traumatized… He needs help badly.”
Orta’s support system has whittled down to five or six people, none of whom has the power to stop the harassment he says he receives in custody. Concern combined with hopelessness sometimes causes his supporters to lash out at one another. A member of the group emailed in all caps: “WHAT CAN WE DO? ... EVERY TIME WE DO NOTHING AND HIS CONDITIONS GET WORSE.”
The frustration is understandable. Orta and his supporters are caught in a loop. What he needs, he can’t get. His current lawyer has stopped returning calls but isn’t officially dropped from his pending appeals, making it very difficult for a new lawyer to take up his case. Support from activists, who in 2014 lauded Orta as a hero, has dwindled. In theory, Orta could pursue litigation against the Department of Corrections for mistreatment, but petty abuses don’t count for much legally. They don’t matter enough.
“Even if you could prove the abuse, what injunction could we win?” Lewis says. “The law already states that COs are not to beat people up gratuitously. So what can you say other than: please follow the Constitution.”
De Gennaro sighs. “This is a long way of saying that there really isn’t a lot of recourse for people who are in custody and are sustaining recurrent harassment and retaliation.”
In July, I visit Orta at Altona. The area is in the midst of a heat wave that, 30 minutes north in Quebec, will kill 33 people. There’s no air conditioning in the visiting room, and the power keeps going out. I jump a bit each time the room goes dark.
“It’s just the power,” Ramsey says, shrugging. “Cuts out all the time.”
His hair is pulled back into two tidy French braids. I try to imagine him sitting patiently, having someone in the prison so carefully tend to his hair.
He is on edge. He’d recently been cited for having contraband in his cell. Orta draws to manage his anxiety and had asked for a small staple, which he’d stuck into a pencil’s eraser. He showed his CO how he’d use it to make etchings, and the CO had seemed to approve. The COs, Orta explains, were sometimes lenient, sometimes friendly, which lulled him into a temporary confident feeling. I am struck by this. From a very young age, Orta’s fundamental sense of safety, of protection, has been chaotically disordered, creating within him an abyss where trust should be, and yet here he is explaining that he still tries to trust his COs.
“There are good ones,” he says.
Days later, Orta’s cell was tossed and, in the citation documents, the tool was referred to as an illegal tattoo gun. He was sent to solitary. Orta filed a grievance, explaining that a CO had given him permission to use the tool. The CO denied it and the case was closed.
Some of his supporters have encouraged him to stop writing these grievances, to stop speaking to the press, to stay as quiet and docile as possible to avoid further harm. Deja tells me she worries Orta will continue filming the police after his release. His parole could last for three years, and any violation — like being arrested at a protest — could land him back in custody. Every act of resistance is mediated by the fear of retaliation and the pressure to stay quiet, to hide out, to disappear from the scene, comes not just from the police or his COs, but from his loved ones. In this way, the people who want to protect him unwittingly join the effort to silence him.
I am 10 minutes from Altona when Deja calls me. As soon as I’d left, Orta was given a ticket for his braided hair, which was apparently not in regulation. This meant a possible 30 more days in solitary.
“They’re mad when he talks to journalists,” she says. But of course I hadn’t told anyone at the prison that I was a journalist.
“Look in a mirror. They know why you’re there.”
Is this my fault? I think. Am I putting him in danger, just by visiting him? I hear myself promise to visit him again, and then I stop. My fear, too, can become part of the punishment.
Orta could be released as early as December 2019, but if the cycle of citations continues, he could lose that date and remain incarcerated until July 2020. The most common question Orta asks is: “Why can’t I be left alone to do my time?”
As I searched through the stack of his grievances, I kept looking for a complicated set of answers to this question, for evidence that the ticketing is incentivized in some way, much like the exposed quota structure in the NYPD. Later, Dori Lewis tells me I’m looking at the problem the wrong way.
“The motivations are much more obvious,” she says. “There’s abuse of the authority coupled with the implicit or explicit racism that pervades the system.”
These twin evils — dominance and racism — are framed clearly in the Garner video. A death at the hands of the police is like a stone thrown into water: rings ripple outward over a vast space, touching all who survive. The death doesn’t end when the court cases are settled or when the press moves on. We can try all we want to resolve the cognitive dissonance that arises as a result of watching these many videos, but we can’t unsee them. Once we know that we are not all safe, we can’t unknow it. We are forever disrupted. This disruption, not justice, is the legacy of Orta’s video. But at what cost?
In April 2015, while Orta was in Rikers, a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager, shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man. The official police report stated that Slager feared for his life as Scott overpowered him in a fight for control over Slager’s police Taser. Slager didn’t know that the incident had a hidden observer, a young man named Feidin Santana, who had secretly filmed the shooting. But Santana did not immediately release what he’d recorded. Having followed the Eric Garner case, Santana knew Orta had been incarcerated. He knew justice was rare and witnesses were in danger of police retaliation.
The video is chilling. It shows Slager carefully line up his sights, take a breath, and fire eight rounds at Scott as he runs in the opposite direction, posing no threat to anyone. Five bullets struck Scott. As he lay dying on the ground, Slager approached, handcuffed him, and dropped his Taser, which had always been safely within his control, next to Scott’s body. Slager was later indicted on federal charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but only after multiple attempts to prosecute. The jury in his first trial — who had been shown Santana’s video — deadlocked, forcing a mistrial.
Santana has said in interviews that he held on to the video because he felt his life would be in danger. He considered deleting it and leaving Charleston altogether. He had reason to believe that the video wouldn’t secure justice for the Scott family, as Orta’s had not for Garner’s family. It took Santana three days to find the bravery to come forward with the video. How many others would not? Have not?
Orta has been asked many times by journalists, lawyers, and supporters if he regrets filming and releasing the Garner video. His response changes with his situation and mood. Sometimes he speaks to the pride he felt standing up for what he knew was right, defending his friend, aiming at justice. Other times he’s fed up, beaten down by all the suffering that’s come his way.
“Finally, I’m trying to do something good with my life, something good for my community. And that’s when I really get in trouble?” he asks me, searching my face for answers I don’t have. “Not the drugs, not the gang stuff, the video?”
He looks away from me. Then he tells me he wakes in a panic in the middle of every night. He’s certain someone is in his cell. Sometimes he thinks he can see someone, but when he stands, there’s no one there. He inspects his cell to see if anything has changed while he’s slept. Sometimes the day stretches on as if he’s still in a dream. He tells me he can’t feel the ground when he stands; it keeps shifting below him. He shows me small burns on his palms and tells me he brings the embers of his cigarettes close to his skin, just to see if it will hurt, if it will leave a mark, proof of whether or not he’s awake or still sleeping.
Paranoia and fear form their own prison, one Orta is likely to live in for the rest of his life.
Do you wish you could go back and do it differently? Not take the video?
I’d waited a year, known him a year, before I asked this question. He looks away from me and lowers his head.
Finally he says, “What does it matter?”