Eric Thayer / Reuters

Protests over no indictment in NYPD chokehold death remain peaceful

Family of Eric Garner calls on supporters to ‘keep the peace,’ adding ‘we all are hurting’ over grand jury decision

NEW YORK CITY — A Staten Island grand jury’s decision Wednesday not to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man sparked protests across New York City, with participants demanding justice for the victim and drawing comparisons to similar killings by police officers — most notably, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The July 17 killing of Eric Garner, a 44-year-old father of six, at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo sparked fierce debate about the use of force by police in the United States, particularly in New York, where African-Americans have long alleged racial profiling. The case gathered widespread attention after a video emerged of Pantaleo using a police-banned chokehold to restrain Garner as he screamed "I can't breathe" multiple times. 

Immediately after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, protesters gathered in Tompkinsville on Staten Island, where Garner was killed, and expressed dismay over what they say is a lack of justice.

“I think the justice system keeps protecting white people,” said Robert Copeland, 32, of Brooklyn. “I need our American justice system to indict killers, especially if they’re sworn to uphold the law and they instead kill people just like the same people they lock up.”

Copeland, like others there, accused the grand jury of being racially biased. “This is the most blatant racism I’ve ever seen since I’ve been alive,” he said. “Several black people have been killed this year, and each of their killers got away scot-free. That sends a loud message to black people.”

While there didn’t appear to be any organization to the gathering, protesters cried and leaned on one another for emotional support. Many chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to the reported last words of Brown, who was unarmed.

A St. Louis County grand jury decision announced on Nov. 24 not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death sparked days of protests — some violent — and raised racial tensions across the United States.

Video: Garner’s stepfather offers comfort after grand jury decision

In New York, Garner’s family took pains to stress the importance that protests remain peaceful. Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, and Esaw Garner, his widow, released a statement calling on supporters to make their views known in “a peaceful, constructive way.”

On Staten Island, Garner’s stepfather, Ben Carr, was seen comforting distraught members of the community and urging calm. “Let’s keep the peace. We are all hurting,” he told one man in an emotional exchange.

Just blocks away at Staten Island’s Mount Sinai United Christian Church, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed a crowd of activists and community leaders, offering his condolences to the Garner family and expressing his fears for his son, Dante, who is biracial.

“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” he said earlier in a statement. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.”

The protesters appeared to be upholding that tradition, talking and chanting through their emotions rather than resorting to the looting and violence that took place in Ferguson.

In Manhattan, activists organized a silent die-in protest at Grand Central Terminal to draw attention to the victims of police brutality and express their outrage over the grand jury's decision not to indict Pantaleo

The protesters lay motionless on the floor in the main hall of the transit hub at about 4:30 p.m. — timed so that rush-hour commuters would see them. Metropolitan Transit Authority officers and New York state and city police, stood by, some carrying flex cuffs for potential arrests.

While most of the protesters closed their eyes and remained silent during the action, some participants spoke to reporters and passersby.

Soraya SoiFree, 45, of the Bronx said she was participating in the action to protest racism in the police force. “Don’t allow racist cops to join the force,” she said, lying on the marble floor. “And rookies need to be better trained … This is a human rights issue.”

Some bystanders scoffed at the protesters and shook their heads; others took the opportunity to voice their support.

Chauvet Bishop, 29, of Brooklyn said she planned to attend a similar die-in on Sunday and hoped that it would draw empathy from local police. “Police need to realize that black people are human. We bleed. They bleed. They shoot us. We bleed,” she said.

Jim Martin, 65, passing through the station, lamented how long inequality has held on in the U.S. “This is almost 2015,” he said. “When are we going to get over these problems?” 

The protest ended promptly at 5:30 p.m., with those lying on the ground chanting “I can’t breathe” before leaving. MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the action was peaceful and that no arrests were made.

Protesters vowed to rally through the night. At nearby Times Square, at least 200 protesters blocked walkways, chanting, “Help! Help! I can't breathe!” and “No indictment is denial. We want a public trial.”

Meredith Reitman, a 40-year-old white woman from Queens, held a sign reading “White silence = white consent.” Despite the lack of indictment in the Ferguson case, she said the decision not to indict in New York shocked her. “We should hope for justice and be surprised every time it doesn’t happen,” she said.

About 400 protesters marched through midtown Manhattan, tying up traffic as they headed from Times Square to Rockefeller Center, where they held a die-in and tried but failed to disrupt the annual Christmas tree lighting.

Other protesters blocked traffic on the West Side Highway, delayed motorists at the Lincoln Tunnel and held a sit-in at Columbus Circle.

Amanda Seales, a 33-year-old black woman from Harlem, said activists needed to get off social media and into the streets. “For black people, this isn't new,” she said as she marched. “And this cannot continue.”

There were also peaceful protests in San Francisco and Oakland, with people carrying “I can't breathe” signs and chanting “Black lives matter.” Last week protests in Oakland after the grand jury decision in the Brown case ended with vandalism, property damage and arrests.

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