“What’s happening?” he asked in a video of the December traffic stop, which has since exploded on the Internet.
“What is happening is that you are about to ride the lightning, son,” Officer Joe Gutierrez shouted, using a slang term for execution.
Welch, 52, could not process what he saw on his phone. He had helped raise Nazario and considered him his nephew. Welch held his breath as tears pierced his cheeks.
He had seen a version of this video before.
His wife, Raquel, was also a cousin of Eric Garner, a black man who died on the sidewalk of Staten Island in 2014 after an officer wrapped him in suffocation. The national outrage, the demands for change, and the immortality of his last words – “I can’t breathe” – did little to help his family suffer. Among them was a young man, Caron Nazario, who called Garner his uncle.
Raquel contacted him shortly after Garner’s death. In her grief, she had to remind him of a message he had heard many times before: If a policeman ever confronts him, he had to stay calm, to comply, never to make them feel threatened.
Six years later, on a cool winter evening, he was returning from military training when the police lights flashed behind him. His Chevrolet Tahoe was so new that he had not yet been given permanent plates, but the temporary ones glued on the inside were visible through the rear window.
Nazario, who is black and Hispanic, didn’t want to stop in the dark, so he paused until he reached a well-lit BP gas station. There, Gutierrez and another officer, Daniel Crocker, drew their pistols and asked Nazario to go outside.
Despite Nazario’s composure – quietly begging for an explanation, begging the officers to relax, raising his hands through the window – Gutierrez sprayed pepper on his face before pulling him away and hitting him repeatedly with his knee.
“I actively serve this country, and that’s how you will treat me?” Nazario said, never raising his voice.
Nazario, who was acquitted without charge, filed a lawsuit this month alleging that Gutierrez and Crocker violated his constitutional rights, in particular the Fourth Amendment. The case says police also threatened to end Nazario’s military career if he talked about the incident. He is seeking at least $ 1 million in damages.
The trial has further focused the nation’s attention on how the police treat blacks at a time when Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis officer, is facing trial for the death of George Floyd. Not far from the courthouse, another unarmed black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a police officer on Sunday in a Minneapolis suburb.
What many have found most remarkable about Nazario’s experience is not the alleged abuse – the same kind they have seen from time to time – but rather the way he reacts to it.
– This behavior is what he is The whole timesaid Raquel. “That’s exactly what he is.”
Her husband remembers episodes during Nazario’s childhood when he remained so stoic during a reprimand that it would disappoint his mother.
Ma, he told her, calm down.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, recognized the same balance in him as a child growing up around the corner from her home in Brooklyn – and she thought that kept him alive.
“I really thank God it turned out the way it did, because if he had stopped in this dark place, I’m sure they would have taken his life,” Carr said. “I’m so glad he drove and got to the gas station.”
Carr fondly remembered Nazario’s early years. According to her, he was a smart student and a talented athlete, later he played baseball – he was a pitcher – and ran to George Westinghouse High School.
“He was respectful, responsible. “Good child,” Carr said. “Everyone liked him.”
Nazario, one of four siblings raised by a single mother, wanted to join the army as a child. He was fascinated by the stories that Raquel’s father, a decorated Vietnam veteran, told about the war and always wanted to help people.
Growing up, Nazario, who received As and Bs, received several awards for community service, including special quotes from City Council and Brooklyn employees. In high school, he appeared to serve as a file technician at local government meetings.
In 2011, he enrolled at Virginia State University, attracted by his status as a historic black college. Two years later, Nazario left to enlist in the army as a combat medic. He then returned to VFU and was accepted into the ROTC program, earning the chance to become an officer.
It was an intense environment, said Alexis Simmons, who serves on the same ROTC program, but Nazario has always been the “de-escalator.”
“If someone was arguing, he would make everyone better,” she said, recalling his strong sense of empathy. One day she was struggling with a personal problem, but she did her best to hide it. He still noticed. Nazario pulled her aside and told her he was next to her if she needed anything.
Deon Tillman, a classmate and campus photographer, posted photos earlier this week on Nazario’s Facebook page during graduation wearing a full uniform. Ever since he knew Nazario, Tillman has written, “he is cool, cool, calm, and collected.”
He hopes that these photos, not Nazario’s handcuffs on the pavement, will be the lasting images people have of him.
Nazario was assigned to the Virginia National Guard in December 2016 and works as an employee of the Army Health Services Administration. Last year, he performed his duties as part of the Guards coronavirus response, a spokesman said. Following the Capitol uprising on January 6, his lawyer said he was also activated to serve in the area, working on medical staff at the central command center.
Nazario returned home to New York in February after Raquel’s father died. At the funeral, he mentioned that he had been pulled out by the police, but shared a few details with typical underestimation. Most of his family had no idea what he had endured until the video was released this weekend.
Raquel and her husband started checking on him almost every day.
“She’s not doing well,” Raquel told Nazario, who still has nightmares tonight. “As calm as he was, I think anyone who’s been through this would be dealing with trauma.”
In a conversation, the couple learned something else about him: the army could deploy him to Afghanistan later this year.
They were stunned. He had just survived, which they thought was almost a mortal experience, and could now be sent to a battle zone? Was it good enough to do that? Couldn’t he get out somehow?
“If they ask me to go,” Nazario told them, “I will go.”