MEMBERS ONLY: A Martial Artist’s Perspective on Eric Garner’s Death by Chokehold

“He [Pantaleo] reiterated that he used a takedown maneuver, that he did not utilize a chokehold. And any contact his arm had with the neck was incidental. He never intended to harm Mr. Garner, nor did he ever apply any pressure to his neck area.We have always maintained it was never a chokehold. It was takedown procedure he was instructed in how to perform while in the police academy.”

– Stuart London, attorney to Daniel Pantaleo

I’m not going to post the video of Eric Garner being manhandled, then strangled on the floor given how upsetting it is knowing the assault ended his life. You can watch it here if you haven’t already, and further footage of him laying unconscious on the street for over 5 minutes here.

I have watched the video several times and can say without any uncertainty whatsoever that Eric Garner was choked, and choked extremely violently. I say this with many, many years as a self defense instructor (Krav Maga), and specifically a good deal of experience in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have actually used choke holds in two real self defense situations, and have applied them in training literally hundreds and hundreds of times (I have also been choked out on numerous occasions in training).

The choke you can see Pantaleo applying to Garner’s neck is one Jiu Jitsu academies frown upon in training because it is so dangerous. Pantaleo used his forearm to apply direct pressure to Garner’s trachea. In Jiu Jitsu, you are taught to align your elbow with your opponent’s chin, so pressure is applied to the carotid arteries stopping blood from flowing to the head, rather than preventing the intake of air. Here is how the choke should be applied properly:

The trachea choke directly prevents someone from being able to breathe, and can cause extreme inflammation to the throat. As the coroner reported, Garner was killed by “Compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” That isn’t surprising given the force with which Pantaleo applied the choke.

If Pantaleo is serious when he says that it was a ‘takedown procedure that he was instructed to perform while in the police academy’, then the NYPD needs to completely change its self defense training program and fire whoever is teaching ‘takedowns’.

I don’t believe Pantaleo was trying to kill Eric Garner, but it is abundantly clear that he was trying to choke him, and he was almost certainly trying to hurt him. Pantaleo applied extreme force on Garner’s neck while he was standing, and was able to bring him to the floor largely because of the confusion and pain he would have caused. Without that specific pressure on the neck, it is unlikely Panteleo would have been able to bring Garner down anywhere near as swiftly, particularly given his size. On the floor, Pantaleo tightened the hold even further, causing Garner to panic and shout out ‘I can’t breathe’. Anyone with experience of grappling knows the difference between trying to control someone, and trying to hurt them. And Pantaleo was trying to hurt Garner.

If you’ve ever been choked, you’ll know exactly how frightening the feeling of having your airways shut down is. Newcomers to Jiu Jitsu often become incredibly distraught when they are caught in a rough chokehold, and it can take them months to get to a point where they don’t panic and can relax when put in a bad position. Not only was Garner not a Jiu Jitsu practitioner, he was quite seriously overweight and suffered from asthma, meaning he would be incredibly vulnerable to violent neck chokes. Police forces are (or at least should be) trained to take this into account when arresting people, so it is unfathomable that Pantaleo is telling the truth that he was trained to take people down that way.

There are multiple aspects of the Garner case that makes the event so troubling – the fact that there was no serious reason to arrest him in the first place, the continual harassment of minorities in ‘hotspot’ areas, and of course the completely unnecessary amount of force used to subdue him.

Pantaleo had a history of aggressively policing black men, and clearly did not have the necessary skills to pull off a safe takedown of an offender, or to subdue him with a proper neck choke.  Sadly, the toxic combination resulted in Garner’s death.

In my Jiu Jitsu class, Pantaleo would have been given a very serious warning by the instructor not to use such dangerous force against other classmates. A second offense, and he would have been asked to leave. No serious Jiu Jitsu instructor would sign off on sending someone as unskilled and aggressive as Pantaleo out onto the street to use his ‘skills’ on regular citizens.

In the wake of Garner’s death, NYPD officers will be going through a three-day retraining program to teach them how to subdue people properly.  To a Martial Artist, this is completely absurd – you cannot teach (or re-teach) proper takedowns or chokeholds in such a short period of time. If the police force are to be allowed to use Jiu Jitsu against the public, they need extensive and continuous training, and must reach a proficient level where they don’t run ANY risks of damaging someone unnecessarily.

Otherwise, they shouldn’t use them at all.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.

The Banter Needs Your Support! Learn About Becoming a Member:Support Good Journalism
+ +