WeCopwatch, an activist organization dedicated to the nonviolent observation of police, says that corrections officers threatened to deliberately infect Ramsey Orta for weeks before he fell ill.
Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the police murder of Eric Garner in July 2014, has been transferred to the medical wing of the Midstate Correctional Facility prison in Marcy, New York. The group WeCopwatch, an activist organization dedicated to the nonviolent observation of the police, noted that corrections officers had for weeks been threatening to deliberately infect him as a punishment for standing up to authority, claiming he was told: “he will be lucky to get out alive.” WeCopwatch considers filming the police abusing their powers like Orta did a civil duty.
“Before the outbreak, Orta had already been facing systematic abuse and torture by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision,” they wrote, “the barbaric measures against Orta have gone on for years, but now with the onset of Covid-19 at his facility, the targeted abuse has intensified.” He has, like many others inside America’s prison system, been denied basic cleaning supplies and soap throughout the outbreak. “Ramsey risked everything when he filmed the death of his friend Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD and now six years later, his own life is at risk,” said his fiancé, Deja Richardson, “We just want him home.”
Orta shot to national attention in 2014 when he filmed NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo dragging Garner to the ground in a chokehold, suffocating him to death on the streets of Staten Island. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for African-Americans and opponents of a racist law enforcement system and sparked protest marches throughout the United States. Despite the coroner ruling Garner’s death a homicide, a grand jury decided later that year not to indict Pantaleo, fueling further demonstrations. “Death by cop” is a leading cause of death for African-Americans; around 1 in 1,000 black males will be killed by the police.
Although it is commonly said that Garner was assaulted for selling loose cigarettes, this is untrue: while he was known to police for doing so, on the day of his death he was simply standing in the street.
Two years after Garner’s killing, the only person charged with anything was Orta, after accepting a plea deal for weapons and drugs charges. Orta said he had faced repeated harassment from authorities as retaliation for filming the police killing Garner, having been arrested many times on bogus charges. He has since been constantly moved from prison to prison, often increasingly further from his home and his family. Midstate Correctional Facility is in upstate New York, over 200 miles from Staten Island. In contrast to Orta’s treatment, authorities gave Pantaleo a 24-hour bodyguard and modified his house, installing panic buttons for him.
While Orta has a high temperature and was transferred to the medical wing, authorities have not confirmed whether his condition is indeed the coronavirus that is currently running rampant through American prisons. As of Monday, there are over 1,200 people at the notorious Rikers Island jail (where Orta was previously held) that have been confirmed as corona-positive. Meanwhile, more than 1,800 inmates and 100 staff at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio have contracted it (three-quarters of its total population). This accounts for one-sixth of all Ohioan confirmed cases. For weeks, health professionals have warned that “a storm is coming” and American prisons are a deathtrap, completely unprepared for the wave of illness. The decision, therefore, to keep so many locked up when other countries have released their prison population seems like a calculated political and economic choice that puts for-profit institutions ahead of human life.
Like Orta, another figure who revealed to the public the oft-hidden brutality of the state, Julian Assange, remains in custody. This is despite his health failing and him having pre-existing medical conditions making him far more likely to die from COVID-19 than most. Orta’s story is another reminder of the punitive measures that await those who challenge the power of the state.
The United States by far leads the world in COVID-19 infections, with 767,189 confirmed cases and over 41,000 deaths. Nearly half of those deaths have been in New York State. However, even the official numbers are certainly an undercount, as Mayor de Blasio has admitted. Thus, if Orta was indeed given COVID-19 on purpose by vengeful guards, it would not have been difficult: it appears it is only a matter of time before all those incarcerated contract it.
Correction | An earlier version of this article stated that Orta had already tested positive for COVID-19 but new information revealed to MintPress by people close to Orta revealed that authorities have yet to confirm a positive result.
Feature photo | Ramsey Orta, who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner, is detained during a march against the Charlotte police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Manhattan on September 21, 2016. Andrew Kelly | Reuters
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.