Author Matt Taibbi talks police brutality, Eric Garner at Chicago Humanities Festival event

Alison Albelda, Reporter

New York Times bestselling-author Matt Taibbi discussed racial tensions and civilian-police interactions in Cahn Auditorium on Saturday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

About 600 people attended the event, which was moderated by Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot. Taibbi said his latest book, “I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street,” explores conditions that led to a fatal confrontation between the New York police and Eric Garner.

On July 17, 2014, Officer Daniel Pantaleo and his partner, Justin Damico, confronted Garner and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. A cellphone video showed Pantaleo using a chokehold –– a tactic prohibited by the New York Police Department –– to subdue Garner, who was unarmed. New York City’s medical examiner found that Garner died from neck and chest compressions, which resulted from a chokehold. In December 2014, a state grand jury on Staten Island decided not to bring charges against Pantaleo.

Taibbi, a contributing editor for “Rolling Stone,” said he was intrigued by Garner’s case following the court’s decision and wanted to learn who Garner was as a person. He added that he went as far as driving to Staten Island, where Garner was from and his confrontation with police happened, to do interviews.

“I started to talk to people in the park where he used to work, and everybody had all these great stories about him,” Taibbi said.

Taibbi said he talked to more than 200 people and spent nearly three years working on the book.

Though The Boston Globe named Taibbi’s book to its fall must-reads list and described it as a “a complex and textured examination” of Garner’s death, Taibbi has recently been criticized for another book, which he co-wrote in 2000.

Taibbi received backlash for the memoir, “The Exile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia,” after speaking about it with an NPR reporter, according to Reuters. Some have said the book, which details his time as editor of an English newspaper in Russia, also contains passages detailing possible mistreatment and instances of sexual assault against female employees.

However, in a Facebook post published Thursday, Taibbi said the events described in the book were “fictional and not true.”

“I absolutely regret putting my name on that book,” Taibbi said during Saturday’s talk. “I have a lot of regrets about the editorial decisions I made during that time. Obviously, I want to emphasize that there is a difference between what I wrote and what my partner Mark Ames wrote. We had different areas of emphasis but (the book) was conceived as a giant satire.”

Taibbi was one of more than 65 speakers participating in the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Rina Ranalli, director of programming for the festival, said it aims to represent experts from all fields related to the humanities.

“We are looking at the sciences, looking at literature, looking at visual artists,” Ranalli said. “We look to all those kind of combinations to make a great festival.”

Taibbi, who is white, told the audience it is important for reporters writing about racial issues to immerse themselves in the community.

“White reporters like myself have to start owning these stories and not leaving them to other people,” he said. “We have to do it, we have to educate ourselves.”

Taibbi also examined the criminal justice system in his new book, and said police brutality is sustained over time by bureaucratic decisions that protect the police from being punished.

He added that people must push for change to end police brutality.

“It is a bigger story than just bad cops,” he said. “It is a story about a bureaucracy that is filled with loopholes, and tricks, and false peaks, and quicksand and it’s all in there. People need to learn about all of that if they hope to change the problem.”

Highland Park resident Dolores Kohl Kaplan, who attended the event, said students can help improve the country.

“Police brutality, racism and all problems in our society give students a real insight into the bureaucracy, that it is not just the policemen,” Kohl Kaplan said. “On the contrary, it is the judicial system. It is the bureaucracy that students need to study in order to improve the situation and create a real democracy in our country.”

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