The streets of New York seethed last night as protesters reacted in anger and shock to the news that a grand jury in Staten Island had declined to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner, a black father of six, despite a video that captured the officer choking the 43-year-old to death on a bright July afternoon.
The protesters poured from offices and apartments, stores and restaurants, drawn by a stream of texts and tweets urging New Yorkers to demand justice for a crime that so many had witnessed but so few—a grand jury of just twelve—had decided not to prosecute. Some waved signs reading, “I can’t breathe”—Garner’s last words, uttered eleven times, before he died. Others chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,”—the rallying cry that has come to symbolize the murder of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, just days after Garner was killed. Like Pantaleo, the officer who killed Brown, Darren Wilson, was let off the hook last week after a grand jury in Ferguson refused to indict him. Many of the protesters who rushed into the streets last night were the same ones who had raced to Union Square and elsewhere last week, after news of Wilson’s non-indictment game down, giving the evening a strange ritual flow.
The first of these protesters gathered in Times Square at 5 pm, about two hours after the announcement that the jury had chosen not to indict Pantaleo. One protester, Israel Gomez, was wrapped in a Mexican flag and holding up a sign reading “Black Lives Matter,” a pairing he had chosen deliberately, he said, to make the connection between the massive demonstrations in Mexico against their government for its role in the disappearance of forty-three students, and the discontent in America against unaccountable police.
“The state is committing violence against people, and it [is] getting away with it,” Gomez told The Nation.
The hundreds gathered in Times Square soon began moving toward Rockefeller Plaza, chanting, skirting police barricades and marching down the street. Stopped cars honked in support and frustration. As they pressed east, a group further north marched through Columbus Circle, halting traffic on the way to Harlem. Seventy-year-old Willie Everett, a black man who said he joined the rally after coming upon it by accident, recalled a recent police killing of Tamir Rice, an unarmed black child, in Cleveland.
“[The police] can’t stop killing us,” he said. “They need to take their guns away, but the guy in Staten Island, they just choked him. This is crazy, it is crazy.”
Several hundred people eventually made their way to the West Side highway, where minor scuffles broke out after NYPD officers unsuccessfully tried keeping protesters off the street. After walking on the highway and stalling traffic for about an hour, demonstrators joined with another group in the Upper West Side. Later, demonstrators occupied the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Station. At any given moment there were five or six groups playing cat-and-mouse with the NYPD, linking up and breaking away as police followed.