It often seems as if every conversation on Staten Island is about traffic problems. Of the five boroughs in New York City its approximately 500,000 residents own by far the highest number of cars per capita, and there is simply not enough room to drive them. Most of the roads on Staten Island are former Indian trails, and therefore not exactly laid out for modern traffic. The only thoroughfare connecting the west and the east coast of the island, the totally misnamed Staten Island Expressway, is usually congested, and unless it’s the middle of the night it can easily take an hour to drive the 7.3 miles from the Goethals bridge to the Verrazano bridge, and that is on a good day. Three of the four bridges connecting Staten Island with New Jersey and Brooklyn date back to the 1920s and the 1930s, and two of them are hopelessly obsolete. As a result of this misery Staten Islanders can pride themselves in having the longest daily commute in the U.S., as it takes them about as much time to get to other parts of New York City as it would take someone traveling from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. To add insult to injury, on the Staten Island bridges 5% of all the tolls in the U.S. are collected, but unfortunately none of that money comes back to the island to improve its infrastructure.
This week Staten Island was in the news for two other issues than its commute and toll collection. Yesterday it was exactly a year ago that Eric Garner was killed by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, and also yesterday former U.S. Representative Michael Grimm, a.k.a. Mikie Suits, who represented Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, was sentenced for tax fraud and will spend the next eight months in jail. The stories of Garner and Grimm tell the story of Staten Island. Garner was an unemployed black man from the north shore who tried to make a living selling ‘loosies,’ single cigarettes from packs without a tax stamp. Trying to arrest Garner for this indeed heinous crime Pantaleo took him in a forbidden chokehold and pulled him to the ground. With his face pushed into the sidewalk and restrained by in total four officers Garner repeated eleven times ‘I cannot breathe,’ but the officers didn’t let go of him until he had lost consciousness, and they didn’t perform CPR. Garner died an hour later in a hospital, but there was no justice for him on Staten Island. A grand jury refused to bring charges against Pantaleo, even though the medical examiner had concluded that Garner had died from ‘compression of the neck during physical restraint by the police,’ and the whole world had seen him being murdered because someone recorded the brutality on an I-phone.
The people who acquitted Pantaleo are the same as the voters who sent Michael Grimm to Congress. Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, ran as the Republican candidate, and although more Democrats are registered on Staten Island than Republicans the borough usually produces a Republican majority in general elections, not in the least because a significant part of its residents belongs to the Conservative Party.
In a population where firefighters and police officers, both active and retired, are overrepresented, and where the District Attorney is an ambitious Republican, it was unfortunately to be expected that Pantaleo would not be charged, and that someone with Grimm’s background would have a leg up.
It might have been interesting to see if Grimm would be shown leniency in a Staten Island courtroom, but because of the nature and location of his felony his case was tried in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Therefore he lost the home court advantage that Eric Garner never had.