Friends In High Places

Eric Garner Protesters Have a Direct Line to City Hall

Meet the leaders of the supposedly leaderless New York protests—Justice League NYC is one of the most effective groups organizing the Eric Garner demonstrations.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The protests in New York City following the grand jury decision not to level any charges after Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a police officer have widely been portrayed—Occupy Wall Street-style—as a spontaneous, leaderless expression of the people’s will. Wednesday, the leaders showed up.

Justice League NYC met with the state attorney general and held a press conference yesterday at City Hall. It was a victory for the protesters but the group hadn’t exactly scaled the ramparts to get there.

Few people outside of activist circles had heard of the Justice League before, but the sudden attention on the group reflects the work of both parts that make it up: political insiders and street organizers. The League has been active during the demonstrations and has worked with other protest groups, but it also has a host of connections, through its backers and advisers, to the political establishment on the other side of the barricades.

Out of all the groups active in the demonstrations around New York, Justice League NYC may have the best chance of achieving its aims. In part that’s because it has a deliberate agenda, an experienced organizing body, and a clear set of written demands. And then there are the group’s connections—that run from celebrities, business executives, and veteran political activists through city government and up to the state’s top elected leader, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Those connections haven’t shown up with megaphones every night, been arrested, or written the list of demands read out on Wednesday, and they don’t guarantee that those demands will be met. But they do get the Justice League access that few of the other activist groups have and raise some interesting questions about where the lines are drawn between dissidents and political operatives, power and protest.

Justice League NYC is “an initiative,” according to Carmen Perez, who created it, developed under the Gathering for Justice, an activist organization founded by Harry Belafonte, where Perez serves as executive director. Most famous as an actor and singer, Belafonte’s also a prominent civil-rights activist and champion of left-wing political causes. At Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration in January—a ceremony heavy on symbolism heralding a new era of progressive change—Belafonte gave the keynote speech.

According to its website, the League is “a task force of juvenile and criminal-justice advocates, artists and experts, and formerly incarcerated individuals… coordinating efforts in and around NYC in response to the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.” The League was “brought together under the banner of the Gathering for Justice, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte in 2005,” reads the “About” section.

None of this is a secret. The Justice League’s website spells out both its origins and connections to the Gathering for Justice. A glance at the Gathering’s board of advisers makes it clear that there’s power behind the protesters. Alongside Belafonte, there’s Tamika Mallory, former executive director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and Michael Skolnik, political adviser to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, among others. Mallory, Skolnik, and Simmons were all in attendance Wednesday for the City Hall press conference.

The walls between protest and institutional power, never fully impermeable in a city like New York, are being crossed more frequently under the city’s new progressive political leadership.

A protest group marching through the streets and shutting down a mall one day, while using personal connections to meet with the attorney general the next, isn’t quite so strange when members of the City Council are protesting their own meetings and staging die-ins in front of City Hall.

If you go back to de Blasio’s speeches when he was running for mayor, his campaign themes anticipated much of what defines the current protest agenda. Reforming the police department by holding officers accountable and ending racially discriminatory practices, were central to the mayor’s vision. So was the importance of protest itself, which he vowed to protect from the heavy-handed policies employed by his predecessors. “We’re going to take a very different view going forward about how we respect people’s rights to express themselves,” de Blasio said in January.

So far, the mayor has made good on that promise. The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, with fewer arrests and clashes with police than in other cities. Despite the fact that his approach seems to be working, de Blasio has been cautious about interacting with the protests himself, presumably to avoid alienating police and voters by appearing to condone disorder. The city’s public response to civil disobedience has come from Police Commissioner William Bratton, who has held his department back and given the protests room, including to temporarily shut down streets and bridges. By doing that, Bratton has said publicly, he expects that eventually the protests will “peter out on their own.”

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Before the Eric Garner decision, there were smaller Ferguson-inspired protests in New York. Those demonstrations drew committed activists, including the New York Justice League, but never caught on among average New Yorkers or impacted the city at large.

Widespread, popular protests began last week after the local grand jury decision. After months of deliberations, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. A video taken at the scene in July shows Pantaleo using a prohibited chokehold on the unarmed Garner, who collapses to the ground saying, “I can’t breathe,” and who died a short time later. A medical examiner determined that Pantaleo’s chokehold contributed to Garner’s death—but the grand jury, its testimony still sealed, decided not to indict the officer.

Since the Staten Island grand jury vote set off city-wide protests, the Justice League has been a constant presence both behind the scenes and at the demonstrations. If you want to know who’s leading the marches, look for the people with megaphones, microphones, and portable speakers. Do that at any given protest and it’s likely you’ll run into the Justice League. Insider connections haven’t kept them out of the streets.

Last week members helped shut down the West Side Highway, a major roadway in New York. Three of the group’s leaders were arrested and later released.

When members of the Brooklyn Nets showed up wearing shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” in front of the visiting British royals and a national television audience—that was the League’s work. They used connections to Jay Z to deliver the shirts, while outside they gathered a crowd of hundreds to march through traffic and eventually into a shopping center that they temporarily shut down.

The group’s influence lends itself to at least two cynical readings: from the left, that the group is compromised by its ties to the establishment; from the right, that every nightmare is true about de Blasio as a revolutionary who took office with a gas can and has been waiting to strike a match.

That’s not how members of the Justice League or its parent organization, the Gathering, see things.

In an interview Tuesday with the League’s leaders, they said the group was acting on its own, not relying on its backers’ and advisers’ ties to City Hall. “In terms of personal relationships with people in the government, we haven’t asked anybody to exploit any relationships on our behalf,” said Julianne Hoffenberg, the League’s director of operations. “We haven’t really used any of our Justice League members or advisory board members to make outreach to anybody in the government,” Hoffenberg said.

After joining Justice League members to meet with State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Michael Skolnik, Russell Simmons’ political director and a member of the Gathering for Justice’s advisory board—who stood alongside the group at City Hall on Wednesday—described the advantages of having ties to political leaders. “We always have the ability to bring people into the streets,” Skolnik said, “we also want to have a productive conversation with people who can meet our demands.”

In an interview, Skolnik said that the Justice League’s meeting with Schneiderman had come out of his own long relationship with the attorney general.

“Schneiderman reached out to me yesterday because I’ve known him for 10 years and he knows that I can set up a meeting with organizers where we can have a productive conversation.” There is a distinction, Sklolnik said, between protesting policies and individual politicians.

The protests so far have relied on a small group of core organizing bodies to harness broad but diffuse support. Justice League NYC doesn’t speak for all the protesters; no one group or individual could fill that role. But they have been a prominent voice and are more effective than most at getting people out on the streets and telling them where to go, and what to shut down, for maximum effect.

Outrage over abusive policing and structural racism isn’t new. Black and Latino New Yorkers have been saying for a long time that police are allowed to treat them with a rough, dehumanizing contempt, as if their lives matter less, without fear of punishment. The aftermath of the Eric Garner grand jury spread that outrage around the city, including among white New Yorkers, and opened a view on to the deep sense of injustice that many have long felt. Now, the key is to hold on to that sentiment and use the popular support as leverage.

“We’re looking at sustaining this and making sure that our demands are met and making sure that we hold our mayor, our governor, our attorney general accountable,” said the League’s founder, Carmen Perez.

The demands, which can be found here, begin with Eric Garner and policing but go far further. Some are broad—like asking for an end to the criminalization of young people in the school system—and one, calling for Daniel Panteleo’s immediate firing, goes beyond calling for a special prosecutor, and veers into violating the officer’s right to due process. But none of them are so out of step with sentiments common among many New Yorkers.

Snow fell lightly Wednesday as a League member standing in front of City Hall read the demands. He was flanked by other members of the group and supporters—Russell Simmons, the rapper Common, City Council members and Eric Garner’s son.

Jumaane Williams, a City Council member known for advocating police reform, spoke at the press conference.

“I’ll say it twice: This press conference today is not about being anti-police,” Williams said and then said again. First, he emphasized the importance of the police and the need for new training and an end to “broken windows” tactics. Then he said the police were no substitute for the lack of other essential services in New York’s black neighborhoods.

The protests were not enough, Williams said, but would go on until the demands were met. “Nothing in this country of good conscience has ever happened without protest,” he said.

The snow wasn’t sticking but still drifting down as the event came to an end. Justice League member Cherrell Brown led the group in chanting “I believe that we will win.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Tamika Mallory is the former executive director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, not the current director.