Eric Garner Widow and Filmmaker Talk Police Protests: Justice "Exists Only on Film"

Esaw Snipes in American Trial - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy American Trial

'American Trial: The Eric Garner Story' director Roee Messinger and Garner's widow, Esaw Snipes, reflect on their film, which imagines what could have happened if the NYPD officer who killed Garner had been put on trial, and comparisons to the current cultural climate.

Last year, director Roee Messinger debuted his film American Trial: The Eric Garner Story at the New York Film Festival, revealing his ambitious project — part documentary, part unscripted history — which imagines what could have happened if a grand jury had indicted ex-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner's death.

Garner died in 2014 after Pantelo placed him in a forbidden chokehold, with his final words, "I can't breathe," caught on video — an eerily similar scenario to the May police killing of George Floyd, who also said, "I can't breathe," as a Minneapolis officer kept his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes.

While officers in Floyd's case have been arrested, Garner's family feels like justice has eluded them. Pantaleo wasn't charged and was only fired five years after the incident took place. Garner's widow, Esaw Snipes, says she did experience some sense of closure with the film, in which she plays herself, alongside real lawyers, experts and witnesses. In fact, Anthony Altieri, who plays Pantaleo, is the only actor involved.

Nine months after American Trial's premiere, the film, which recently premiered on Reelz, is as timely as ever as Garner's name joins Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more on signs and petitions as part of Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Snipes and Messinger spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the movement, lessons from their film and their hope for real (rather than simply onscreen) justice.

How are you feeling about this current moment?

ESAW SNIPES The George Floyd incident brought back a lot of memories. I have my moments, I try to not let it get me depressed. The movie helped me with starting the healing process, being able to talk about him and have good memories and not get upset and cry and stuff like that. I'm trying to deal with it the best I can, day by day. It's still hard for me to believe it's been six years. For a little while, I stopped having the nightmares, and now they're coming back little by little and they seem so real, like [he's] knocking on my door.

ROEE MESSINGER I'm very glad that Esaw and I got a chance to work on this film and I'm very glad that it was able to give Esaw a voice and I'm very glad that we were able to bring attention to something that's so important. At the same time, it's also so frustrating and hurtful and painful to think that six years later the exact same thing happened again. These two cases are just two incidents where there was full video, and to think of how many other incidents there are where there is no video that we don't even know about. Esaw and I met a year after Eric was killed and there were a lot of different stages to making the film — raising the money, getting through production, editing and all of that. Whenever there was an event or somebody interviewed me or asked me about the film, there was always another name that was more recent, that was added to this long list of names. I never had to go more than two weeks to think of a new name that was in the headlines because they were killed by the police.

A lot of people are looking for content right now to educate themselves on race and the police system. What can they learn from this film?

MESSINGER I think that what we were able to achieve with this film is a very, very accurate and objective portrayal of the American justice system. These are all real attorneys who went about advocating for their client or for the people as they would in a real trial. If you watch this film and you see what kind of questions are asked and how the procedure gets carried through, I think that, first and foremost, it's about the accuracy of the proceeding. I also think that in the back of your mind as a viewer, you're always going to ask yourself, "How is it possible that this trial never happened?" And that is the question that you're left with at the end of watching the film. That's the most important thing that any American citizen can and should [ask] in these times: "How is it possible that someone gets killed that way and there is no trial following that incident?"

SNIPES For me, I also wanted people to see it from the family's point of view. It's a movie to you guys, but it's my life, it's what I was feeling, it's what I went through, it's what I endured throughout the whole practice to try to get a trial, to try to get him convicted, to try to get all the things that we thought were a miscarriage of justice from day one. There was no question in my mind that he was murdered. That first day on July 17, it was on the news so fast and we knew, "Oh yeah, he's definitely going to jail. He was wrong, blah, blah, blah," and for them to turn around and say that there wasn't enough evidence was just crazy to me.

So when Roee came up with this idea, I'm like, "Wow, this may jar something in the prosecutor and the D.A. If they see this, maybe it will open up some new doors or new avenues to where we could pursue a conviction." His idea was so fresh; it hadn't been done before and I really had total faith in Roee to bring about what should have happened from the family's point of view. If it was Eric on the other side and he had killed the cop, there would have been no hesitations, no black/white, no right/wrong, nothing; he would have gone straight to jail. The whole justice system is corrupt and it's just crazy. Now it's happened with George Floyd. Yeah, they've been charged, yeah they went to jail, yeah they got bailed out, but what's next? Are they going to go to jail? Even with all of the people protesting, I still don't have faith in the justice system that they're going to do the right thing, or for Breonna Taylor or anybody who has been killed by the police wrongfully.

How does it feel to have this film out while there are national calls for the arrest and prosecution of multiple cops in multiple cases?

MESSINGER As a filmmaker, you're happy that your film is relevant, but when it's something like this, it's also devastating because it is exactly what the people in the streets are talking about — [the film] is almost like a fantasy world or alternate universe where things are done the way they should be done. It's what the people in the streets are yelling for, they want justice, if somebody does something that's against the law, they [want them] be held accountable, and the film shows what that looks like. It's something that, for the moment, exists only on film and not in real life.

You worked with real lawyers, experts and witnesses on the film, what did you learn about the justice system and how these cases are handled?

SNIPES The technicalities of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, murder with intent — it's not black and white. You can say, "Oh, he murdered him but he didn't intend to? Did he have a thought before he took my husband down to the ground, was that his intention?" Who knows what your intention is, we know that the end result is that my husband ended up dead and you're walking around, continuing to live your life. And the charges that they brought against him in the film made me think, "Wow, there was a possibility that some charges could have been brought against Daniel Pantaleo in the same fashion," but six years later, we've seen it coming out on film, and we're like, "How come they didn't say that when the real charges were being filed about the strangulation and depriving somebody of air and all of that stuff?"

MESSINGER Strangulation is an interesting thing. There is a New York state law against strangulation and in the film, one of the charges against Pantaleo was a strangulation charge — the charge is more severe depending on the outcome of the strangulation, so if a person dies as a result of strangulation, it's a more severe crime, a more severe penalty than if a person is choked and eventually isn't harmed. This is interesting in the context of the new chokehold ban that they passed in New York state a couple of weeks ago — there always was a chokehold law in New York state, it just was not enforced on police. They had to create a new separate law to make sure, like, "Yes, we already are not allowing people to strangle each other in New York state, but just so we're super clear about it, police officers are also now not allowed to strangle people in New York state." It's really mind boggling, like there's almost two separate systems of law for civilians and police officers.

SNIPES We started working on that last year, the chokehold law, we didn't start on it immediately. My kids really went hard for it and then it died down last year. Then when George Floyd happened, they brought it back up and they passed it, and it was phenomenal because my daughter, Erica, rest in peace, was really fighting for it and she was also fighting to have [police officer] record transparency, being able to see their past records and how many times they've been accused of using excessive force and stuff like that. My daughter went to her grave fighting for that and I know she's smiling down on us, happy that her work wasn't in vain; my daughter Emerald picked up the torch and she's running with it now and she's doing phenomenal things. Right now, [the chokehold law] is just in New York state, but it needs to be federally passed so that any cop anywhere who chokes anybody will be prosecuted, 15 years minimum.

What's your outlook right now? How do you feel about things going forward?

MESSINGER It would be wrong to deny the fact that things have gotten better over the years, but again, the question of "OK, we're improving, but what was our starting point?" That's the big factor — just falling from 1,000 people being killed by the hands of the police to 500 people would be great, half the people according to a ton of official statistics, but you're still dealing with 500 people who will get killed every year. There's a limit to how happy you can be with limited progress, especially knowing there are countries out there where nobody gets killed by the police. It's possible.

SNIPES It's happening on a daily basis, every single day, someone else being violated by the police. It's just ridiculous, it really is. I'm scared to go outside, I don't even leave my house. I don't want police contact. I've been stopped by the police, I've had three incidents with the police since my husband died and I was really scared. I'm not a scared person but I am scared of the police.

MESSINGER We're pleased, or content, that the guy who killed George Floyd was indicted but what does it mean that we're happy that he's getting charged? We should be happy when these things don't happen anymore. It's as though hoping for peace is just not in the cards right now and the best we can hope for is accountability. There's something very sad about that.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.