Protests spread across the country Thursday night over a grand jury’s failure to indict a white New York cop for the choking death of Eric Garner, with tens of thousands marching in the frigid December air from Boston and Washington to Pittsburgh, Oakland and New York.
Despite—or maybe because of—the charge to keep order, even New York’s finest weren’t immune to the protestors’ demands that something had to change.
Although Manhattan was bracketed with rage, with throngs of protestors shutting down one side of the Brooklyn Bridge to the east and another mass of people blocking traffic on the West Side Highway, both protestors and cops restrained themselves. On the corner of West 11th Street and West Side Highway, a social worker who called herself “Feminista Jones” watched as two of her friends were arrested and led away after the “sisters” (as she called them) refused a cop's orders to keep moving.
“They said we were obstructing traffic, disorderly conduct, whatever,” she told a Daily Beast reporter as dozens of cops massed at the corner and three helicopters whirled overhead. Protestors like Jones chanted “Shame!“ at the cops and ”Who do you serve?” into the chilly night air.
“Black lives matter and we need to make that point known, that they can’t keep treating us like this,” she said. “I’m a mother, I have an 8-year-old son. I brought him into this world, and I don’t want him to die by the police.”
She said that as her two friends were being arrested—which annoyed Jones because she wasn’t arrested and wanted to go with her friends—two female cops, one black and one Latina, started tearing up over the message of the protestors.
“They knew what we were saying was true, and we appealed to them as mothers,” Jones said. “I was saying, ‘I have an 8-year-old son. Can you promise me that he’s going to live more than 10 years? Can you tell me that? How do I know when I send my son to school he won’t come back?’ I said, ‘You know what? One of your kids is going to be out and one of your colleagues is going to stop and frisk them, because they won’t know that they’re the child of a cop. How does that make you feel?’ And that’s what got to them.”
Thursday night’s protests started at 5:30 p.m. in Foley Square in lower Manhattan but spread out quickly from there, snarling and blocking traffic on Canal Street and Broadway. They came from all over the city, by the thousands, to converge on the square. There were no obvious leaders; no single ideology or organization held sway over the crowd. Communist banners waved next to signs held by law students, social democrats and activists dedicated to racial injustice and police abuse.
The common denominator was that everyone marching believed that the grand jury’s decision not to charge a police officer for Garner’s death was only the most recent betrayal by an abusive police force and a legal system that could not be trusted to serve justice.
At the park’s entrance Joan Pleune, 75, a member of the Granny Peace Brigade, held up a sign and, when asked why she was there, simply stated the words that have become a motto for protests across the country: “Black lives matter.”
Her friends Phyllis Cunningham, 75, and Eva-Lee Baird, 74, stood with her. “We’ve been involved in social justice and civil rights all our adult lives,” Baird said.
“Joan was a freedom rider. She’s been in Parchman, maybe the worst jail in the country. Phyllis, who was a nurse, went down to Mississippi to provide medical care for people like Joan. She stayed for three years. She was in the march on Selma.”
No designated speakers held the crowd’s attention on any one message or person. Circles formed throughout the park. Standing in one place, you could hear four different chants depending on which way you turned. One group called out “Eric Garner Mike Brown shut the whole system down,” while feet away it was “NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?”
Without any announcement, people started marching out of the park. Different groups went in different directions, and without any clear leaders or certain destination, demonstrators followed. A mass of demonstrators filled the streets around City Hall, blocking traffic there as police stood between cars and the people carrying signs.
Vanya Trotter, a 27-year-old black woman, stood on the edge of the City Hall protests, watching as they passed in front of her. She was picking up her kids after finishing classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College when thousands of demonstrators appeared.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Trotter said. “It’s really too late to indict the cop but hopefully someone will hear our voices.”
“I have young boys who are going to be raised in New York City,” Trotter said, “I hope that if something happens to them there would be repercussions.”
Emilia Colon, another veteran of protests movements who is active in anti-incarceration and police reform causes, said she saw something different about the demonstration Thursday night.
“I’m very impressed by the number of young people,” Colon said. “I didn't think this many young white people would be here. I’m just shocked; I’m surprised. It’s like Vietnam.”
Another crowd moved west in an apparent bid to block the Holland Tunnel. But the NYPD had apparently been tipped to the plan and when the mass of protestors made it to the West Side Highway, after blocking Canal Street and stopping briefly to lie down in the street, police were waiting.
They pulled up in unmarked cars and on motorcycles, appearing en masse out of the darkness. The crowd made it to West 11th Street and West Side, even blowing past an attempted police barricade, before the cops successfully stopped them by blocking the road with cars. One female police officer told The Daily Beast, and then announced to the crowd via bullhorn, that they would arrest people for blocking vehicular traffic. That’s considered disorderly conduct, she said, and if people didn't move after being warned, they would be resisting arrest, for which they would be arrested and fingerprinted. The goal, she said, was to get everyone to disperse without having to make a lot of arrests, as per instructions from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton.
The protestors cooperated for the most part, making the march orderly and peaceful. But the chanting and the sign-waving were just the most visible signs of many people’s frustration, pain and anger that yet again, an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer whose actions weren’t found to rise even to the level of misconduct warranting a public trial.
At the corner where Jones and her friends confronted the police, one girl yelled “Get off the fucking road!” to the police, only to have another protestor gently chide her by saying, “No cursing. We have to be nice.” The girl smiled and said, “It’s hard,” and the other protestor nodded and agreed with her. Then he began shouting the same thing, without the swearing.
Thursday night’s protests were larger and better organized than the spontaneous ones the night before. Mingled among the homemade signs were professionally printed placards calling for an indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who applied the fatal chokehold to Garner on July 17.
Garner’s death, which was videotaped and widely distributed online, occurred after cops accosted the giant of a man for selling “loosies”—single cigarettes—in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island. When officers tried to arrest him after he grew angry, Garner was non-cooperative. The cops piled on and Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold, a technique banned by the NYPD. As Garner wheezed out “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”, Pantaleo pressed the larger man’s face to the pavement. Garner was pronounced dead an hour later, and the city coroner ruled his death a homicide.
The lack of indictment comes just days after a grand jury half a country away in St. Louis declined to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of the unarmed teen Michael Brown in August. That incident and the subsequent lack of indictment led to fiery riots and confrontations between military-clad police units that lasted for days.
And both grand juries ruled the way they did after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead in Cleveland on Nov. 22 by a white cop when the youngster was waving what turned out to be a toy pistol.
No one knows exactly how many citizens are killed by cops in any give year; there is no national database kept and local records are frustratingly incomplete. Also, what data is available isn’t often broken down by race. The FBI does collect some data, as reported by Vox.com, and many media outlets have reported that there were 426 “felons killed by police” in 2012. That’s the minimum number, however, as there is no way to know just how many are not included. And the majority of victims of “justifiable homicide,” as it’s called, were black or Latino.