An open congressional seat in the New York district where Eric Garner was choked to death by police last year is quickly becoming a focal point in the roiling debate about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
The leading contender for the seat vacated by Republican Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to a felony tax charge early this month, is reported to be Dan Donovan—the Staten Island prosecutor widely criticized for failing to secure a grand jury indictment against the officer who killed Garner.
Civil rights groups are alarmed by the prospect of sending Donovan to Washington, particularly as some legislators are pushing for Congress to take up criminal-justice issues in the near future. “District Attorney Daniel Donovan failed to secure an indictment of Daniel Pantaleo and the other NYPD officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death, in spite of video evidence of the entire incident. This is, at best, an indication of incompetence and, at worst, a complete lack of respect for the value of Mr. Garner’s life and the lives of New Yorkers of color,” Loyda Colon of the Justice Committee, a police reform group, said in a statement. “Given this, the idea that Mr. Donovan might take a seat as a policy-maker is frightening and something the Justice Committee whole-heartedly opposes.”
Pete Haviland-Eduah, national policy director for the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, said that he expects his and other civil-rights groups to organize actions against Donovan if he indeed runs for higher office. “Right now New York City is the epicenter of the new civil-rights movement,” Haviland-Eduah said. “People are paying attention and want to get involved. This will be just another avenue—if he should decide to run—for them to take part.”
Unlike Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor who directed the grand jury proceedings in Ferguson, Missouri, and at times displayed flagrant disregard for Michael Brown’s death, Donovan has shied from media attention. That’s helped him duck some of the scathing attention that McCullouch received. But it has also left New Yorkers with plenty of questions, about why the grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo despite video evidence of Garner saying, again and again, that he couldn’t breathe; and what his positions are on police conduct in general, said New York Assemblyman Karim Camara, the Democratic chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
“As a candidate, he’s going to have to speak to that,” said Camara. “That district does comprise many areas that are African-American and poor, and they need to know what his stance is on the epidemic of over-policing.”