As a South Carolina police officer faces murder charges after his fatal shooting of unarmed Walter Scott was caught on video, we look at what happened to the man who filmed Eric Garner’s fatal chokehold on Staten Island. While no police officers were indicted for Garner’s death, the man who filmed the attack, Ramsey Orta, is now locked up in jail after facing what he described as harassment by local police. Orta was first arrested on an unrelated gun charge the day after the Staten Island coroner declared Garner’s death to be a homicide. He was later arrested and jailed on a drug charge. His mother, brother and wife have all been arrested, too. Supporters have accused the New York City Police Department of targeting Orta’s family for releasing the Garner video. We are joined by Ramsey Orta’s aunt, Lisa Mercado, as well as Orta family attorneys William Aronin and Ken Perry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In South Carolina, a white police officer in the city of North Charleston has been fired after being charged with murder for shooting a black man in the back as he fled. The North Charleston Police Department had initially defended the officer, Michael Slager, after he said he feared for his life and claimed Scott had taken his Taser weapon. But video captured by a bystander on his cellphone showed Slager shot Scott in the back at a distance of about 15 feet. The video also appears to capture Slager planting an object, possibly a gun, next to Walter Scott. Charges were filed against the officer only after the video emerged. On Wednesday, the bystander, Feidin Santana, who filmed the killing, spoke to NBC News.
FEIDIN SANTANA: When I saw the scene, I was walking to my job. I was walking to my job. You know, I see Mr. Scott—rest in peace—and I saw police after him, chase him. I was on a phone call, and I decide to go over there and see what was going on.
LESTER HOLT: Was there a struggle?
FEIDIN SANTANA: There was. They were down on the floor. They were down on the floor before I started recording. You know, they were down on the floor. I remember the police had control of the situation. He had control of Scott. And Scott was trying just to get away from the Taser, which—a Taser, you know, you can hear the sound of the Taser.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Feidin Santana, who filmed the police killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the apparent police planting of a Taser gun once he was lying on the ground handcuffed, face down, not clear if he’s dead or dying. The Scott family’s attorney described Santana as a hero. Chris Stewart said, quote, "We have to really recognize the strength and fortitude and fearlessness that it took to come forward when you know you just filmed a police officer murder somebody." Santana told MSNBC he was so afraid of retaliation after filming the incident, he considered deleting the footage and leaving town. But he brought the footage to Scott’s family after seeing how police were describing the shooting.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Many people have compared Feidin Santana to Ramsey Orta, the young Staten Island man who filmed the death of Eric Garner, who died after police put him in a chokehold after they confronted him for allegedly selling cigarettes. You can hear Orta’s voice on the video of the incident, saying, "Once again, police beating up on people."
ERIC GARNER: I’m tired of it! This stops today! It’s over!
RAMSEY ORTA: This guy right here is forcibly trying to lock somebody up for breaking up a fight.
ERIC GARNER: No, what’s—what are you bothering me for? Everybody says I didn’t do nothing. Everybody standing here, they said I didn’t do nothing!
POLICE OFFICER 1: [inaudible] cigarettes [inaudible].
ERIC GARNER: I did not sell nothing.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Why [inaudible]?
ERIC GARNER: Because every time you see me, you want to harass me, you want to stop me, say I’m selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, Officer. I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I’ll told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please don’t touch me. Don’t touch me, please.
RAMSEY ORTA: Hold on, hold on, hold on.
ERIC GARNER: Don’t touch me, please. [bleep] Do not touch me.
WITNESS 1: No! Why are you doing that to him?
WITNESS 2: Damn, man.
POLICE OFFICER 1: Put your hand behind your head!
ERIC GARNER: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!
RAMSEY ORTA: Once again, police beating up on people.
POLICE OFFICER 2: Back up. Back up and get on those steps.
RAMSEY ORTA: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the video shot by Ramsey Orta of Eric Garner’s death after he was placed in a chokehold by New York police officers. Well, nine months after the killing of Eric Garner, only one person has served time in jail. That is Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the incident. In December, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo, who placed Garner in the fatal chokehold. But Ramsey Orta was arrested on a gun charge unrelated to this case two weeks after he went public with the video of the incident. Orta told Time Magazine he was being harassed by police. We will go to that clip in a moment.
Ramsey Orta was arrested again in February, along with his mother and brother, on drug charges. Orta’s wife was also arrested after he released the Garner video. Ramsey Orta is currently locked up on Rikers Island. Supporters of Orta have accused the New York police of targeting the family for releasing the video of Eric Garner’s death.
We’re joined now by three guests. Lisa Mercado is with us. She is Ramsey Orta’s aunt. We’re also joined by Orta’s attorneys, William Aronin and Ken Perry.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Thank you so much for being with us. Lisa, your nephew is in Rikers right now?
LISA MERCADO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
LISA MERCADO: Falsely accused of another accusation, second accusation.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it the day after the coroner announced the death of Eric Garner a homicide that Ramsey was first arrested?
LISA MERCADO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then his wife, Chrissie Ortiz, was arrested after that?
LISA MERCADO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he tell you at the time what was happening to him? Was he afraid?
LISA MERCADO: Yes, he was afraid.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lisa Mercado, a lot of people, viewers around the country, don’t know Staten Island, but Staten Island is the borough known for having the most police who live in the—percentage-wise, in that area. So, this whole issue of police harassment to your family, could you talk about that?
LISA MERCADO: It’s just, ever since the film, the filming that Ramsey did, it was a constant harassment every day, on a daily basis, within the day hours, and it could be 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. Policemen would ride by the home and put spotlights into the windows of the home.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that clip we haven’t played yet, Ramsey Orta speaking to Time Magazine about what he’s been through since filming Eric Garner’s chokehold death.
RAMSEY ORTA: I’ve been harassed by cops since this happened. Anything, like, just don’t interact physically, pull out a camera. And that’s all people need. Not only New Yorkers getting abused by police, everywhere. I just hope it gives people the courage to not be scared of these people, 'cause it's a lot of 'he said, she said.' But once you have proof, there’s nothing that can go against that.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, New York City police also arrested Ramsey Orta’s wife, Chrissie Ortiz, and accused her of assault. She told PIX11 police have been harassing her and her husband, Ramsey.
CHRISSIE ORTIZ: Four o’clock in the morning, I have—we’re laying down, and my whole room lights up. And I’m like, what—what is that? And we look out the window. It’s a police car. They’re driving by and put the spotlight into my window. What was that for?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Chrissie Ortiz. So describe what’s happened with your family now. With Ramsey now at Rikers, where is Chrissie, Lisa Mercado?
LISA MERCADO: She’s at a friend’s house. The entire family ended up having to relocate out of Staten Island.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
LISA MERCADO: Because of the harassment of the police officers.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ken Perry, could you talk about this continuing situation with the family, the harassment here?
KEN PERRY: Well, it seems to be a purposeful set of circumstances, where they are going to show people don’t mess with us. Other than that, I’m not sure what we can really say about it. I mean, these people have had to move out of the area. When Ramsey’s out, we want him out of the area, as well. And part of this whole problem, which we will talk about, is why we want a change of venue for any trial that comes up on this, because it’s important that he has a fair makeup of a jury. And he is not going to get that in Staten Island.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why not?
KEN PERRY: Well, what we’ve seen so far in reaction to news articles, especially like in the paper such as The Staten Island Press, is vehemence and anger and really some ugly things being said about Ramsey that are based very much on things that the police have put out or the DA’s office has put out that’s not true. And what they’re doing is they’re poisoning the well, and thereby poisoning the potential jury pool.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the way that Ramsey filmed this, he was feet from—we went out there to Staten Island the day of the major protests. We were right at the—it’s like in front of a beauty spa, where Eric Garner was just standing when the police attacked him. Ramsey was a few feet away.
LISA MERCADO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And he held that cellphone firm. I mean, we can show this. The video has become world-famous. He never stopped filming. Can you describe what Ramsey said afterwards and how he got the film out? Right now in South Carolina—I’m sure you’re following that—Feidin Santana, the young man who filmed the killing of Walter Scott, is becoming a national hero, because, before that, no one knew what had happened, and the police version of events was accepted, you know, by the papers and by the police. The difference in the comparison of the treatment of Santana and your nephew, Ramsey?
LISA MERCADO: The difference? I don’t understand.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, the way—so, Santana is in NBC’s studios. He’s talking about filming. Everyone is hailing him as a national hero because he showed what took place.
LISA MERCADO: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Ramsey has gotten very different treatment, though he was able to get the video out.
LISA MERCADO: Yes, he was able to get the video. And once he got that video out, he got treated differently. I mean, he’s in Staten Island, small little community, and it’s just constant—you know, they wanted him to not put the video out. They tried to get the video from him a couple of times.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they try to get it from him?
LISA MERCADO: By searching him every time they see him walking in the street. They’ve taken his phone a few times.
AMY GOODMAN: The second time he was arrested, they said to him—he said they said, "You filmed us, now we’re filming you"?
LISA MERCADO: That was actually in the New York Daily News.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan’s paper.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and, William, I wanted to ask you, in terms of his situation right now in Rikers, what’s the current status there?
WILLIAM ARONIN Well, first of all, I want to just thank the community for the incredible outpouring of support that we’ve received. His Gofundme has gone viral and collected—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Gofundme is.
WILLIAM ARONIN Lisa, Ramsey’s aunt, set up a Gofundme—it’s a crowdsourcing site—to try to get the community to contribute whatever they can, $5, $10, $50, to start to add up for the amount to get him out on bail, for a bondsperson, and then also for the legal defense, for investigators, for expert witnesses, for everything that may come up during his case and his trial. And this week, the Gofundme account has gone viral, and we have collected a very significant amount of money that just keeps increasing. Right now, money has been turned over to a bondsperson. We’re just waiting for the court to process. We are hoping to get Ramsey out of Rikers very, very soon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue, he’s been on a hunger strike?
WILLIAM ARONIN I don’t want to call it a hunger strike. We know that there was an incident in Rikers where rat poison was found in food, and a number of inmates, not just Ramsey, were scared and were harmed. Ramsey has been afraid since that, and perhaps even before that instance, that police or officers may be wanting to hurt him. And he is not eating any of the food that Rikers provides him. Instead, he’s living on candy bars, things that come out of a vending machine or the commissary.
AMY GOODMAN: Going back to South Carolina, Feidin Santana, who filmed the police shooting of Walter Scott, told MSNBC he considered deleting the footage because he was afraid of what might happen to him if he came forward.
FEIDIN SANTANA: That I filmed, you know, it was a lot of type of kind of thoughts, you know, in my head. I just—I could say maybe I won’t deny that I knew the magnitude of this, and I tried to—I even thought about erasing the video and—
LESTER HOLT: Why?
FEIDIN SANTANA: I know—I felt that my life, you know, with this information, might be, like I say, in danger. And I tried to—I thought about erasing the video and just getting out of the community of North Charleston and living someplace else.
AMY GOODMAN: After reading the police account of the shooting, it was then that Feidin Santana approached the police with the footage, but he said he got scared and just ran out of there. He ultimately brought the footage to Walter Scott’s family. He said it was just on his conscience. Will Aronin, if you can talk about this and whether Ramsey Orta, who did get his footage out widely—I mean, it’s seen around the world—is sorry he did it now, given what’s happened to him, his wife, his mother, all arrested?
WILLIAM ARONIN: I don’t think he is sorry that he did this. And I want to say, Mr. Santana is a hero. Can you imagine the courage it would take for someone—Ramsey, Mr. Santana—to film a cop strangling someone or to film a cop shooting someone in the back and realize what consequences could come up? He is a hero. But Ramsey did an incredible service. That’s why we’re here to try to help him and why the community has supported him so much. He showed the world an incredibly violent incident that we needed to know about. And just look at the difference with South Carolina, with the police statements before the video came out, which is a Taser was grabbed and his service weapon was used in an appropriate level of force, not just said by the officer himself, but by the police station, and, thankfully, how they changed their story once they saw the video. I think we need to see more of this, and they should be thanked.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Ken Perry, I’d like to ask you about this whole issue now of these videos surfacing in police encounters with civilians that are really changing the very nature of how these cases are dealt with. Obviously, with Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was no video, but there was in Cleveland, there is now in Charleston, and now there is—and there was in Staten Island. Your sense of the changed nature of police-community encounters now?
KEN PERRY: I think that, you know, prior to all this happening, you would see in trials an awful lot of cops getting up there and saying such and such happened, and there would be nobody else to deny that. What’s happening now is people are beginning to realize that police officers can and do lie about the circumstances of arrests and of what happens, and that you can’t just take their word because they’re police officers. And that’s a very necessary and a very good thing. I’ve seen too many times in trials where just because a police officer says something, that becomes gospel. And we know that it’s not the case. And that’s why this is so very important.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, at the memorial service for Eric Garner, the loudest applause of this entire, very large gathering was for Ramsey Orta, who was sitting there in the congregation. What do you want to see, as we wrap up now, Lisa Mercado? What do you want to see happen with your nephew?
LISA MERCADO: I want to see policemen stop bothering, harassing him and his family, and that he can start over in life. And he wants to continue filming, so I just want him to be safe and come home.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Lisa Mercado, Ramsey Orta’s aunt. Ken Perry and Will Aronin are criminal defense attorneys representing Ramsey Orta, who remains at Rikers Island. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, cameras on police. Stay with us.