‘They Let Him Off?’ Scenes from NYC in Disbelief

After months of predominantly black protests in Ferguson, New York residents joined forces in the name of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by the NYPD.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

Protesters in New York shut down bridges, highways, and tunnels Wednesday night but the show went on at Rockefeller Center. The annual Christmas tree was lit and Mariah Carey sang while sirens flashed red and white where protesters gathered across the street. A block from the Christmas gala, behind barricades manned by police, hundreds of people marched into the throng of tourists who’d come to see the tree and chanted “no justice no tree!” and “no justice no peace! No racist police!”

There were protests across New York City after a grand jury vote cleared a white police officer of criminal charges in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.

Less than two weeks ago, the Ferguson grand jury sparked its own protests in New York, but nothing compared to the scale of Wednesday night, when thousands took to the streets.

One group of protesters marched from Times Square to Harlem, where earlier in the day Garner’s widow had appeared with Al Sharpton. At Grand Central Station, a main rail hub in the city, demonstrators staged a “die-in” calling out “I can’t breathe” as they lay on the ground in the terminal.

Throughout the city, protesters massed on major roadways and at bridge and tunnel openings, cutting off traffic before police dispersed them. In all, around 30 people were arrested from the various demonstrations according to CBS News.

The Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center was a focal point for many of marches that started at different points in the city. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio was originally scheduled to attend, he canceled after the grand jury announcement.

Hours before the Christmas tree lighting, protesters started meeting up at New York’s Union Square Park.

At a little past 6 p.m. a chant of “can’t breathe, don’t shoot” rose in the air, called out by 20 or so voices, combining Eric Garner’s last words with a refrain from the Ferguson protests. A block away from the park, their voices were washed out by the traffic, and the noise from passing crowds and another larger group busy assembling itself to begin its own march.

Karen, a 72-year-old white woman, arrived at the park after the first group had left and without knowing that others would follow. She was carrying a protest sign as she looked for people to march alongside. She described herself as a veteran activist. “I’m originally part of Occupy,” she said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street protests. “I’m glad to see that the black community is now with us. In Occupy, it was mostly white, young people.”

“I’m tired,” Karen said. “I’m 72, you know I can’t do this much longer. Things have to change.”

Fifteen minutes after the first group of protesters left the park, another wave followed. This group was far larger, its procession stretching out over two to three city blocks and numbering more than a hundred.

Photos: Scenes From the Eric Garner Protests

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“Can’t breathe, don’t shoot,” they called out as they left the park and marched through the streets. A car parked at a red light honked its horn in rhythm with the chant as the crowd passed in front of it.

Protesters filled the street for only a few blocks before a lone policeman raced from the rear of the crowd to the front and warned that he’d start arresting people if they didn’t stop blocking traffic. A woman at the head of the group turned without missing a step, and waved to her fellow protesters, channeling them on to the sidewalk where they stayed for the remainder of the march.

There were more than a few older protesters like Karen in the group and three or four infants strapped to their parents, but most were between 25 and 45. Judging by race and gender, you couldn’t have picked between the protesters and a subway car at rush hour. It was a standard New York mix.

George Cook, a middle-age black man from the Bronx, brought up the rear. His sign was the last one people saw as the column of marchers passed them, it read, “Am I next?”

Cook walked more slowly than most, stopping to engage with passersby who expressed their own frustration and support. An older white woman, stopped Cook to ask, in strong New York accent, “Oh no, did they let him off?”

“They let him go,” Cook said.

“Why?” the woman asked, stopped in the street where she’d asked her first question.

“That’s why we’re marching,” Cook said getting farther away from her.

“It’s not enough!” the woman cried from behind him.

“There’s no justice,” Cook said.

The grand jury decision “makes us a little bit more fearful to leave our homes every day,” Cook told me.

“To go to work like we do, to go shopping like we do, to pay bills like we do—like any other citizen of this city—but we’re not treated fairly, we’re not treated equally. There’s no justice for African Americans or people of color.”

I asked him what he thought was the first step Mayor de Blasio should take toward making change. “Brother, that’s a really good question and I’m not sure I have the answer,” but then Cook said “the first step is what we’re doing right now.” Marching.

As the protesters got closer to Rockefeller Center, they ran into more cops and barricades and their march got steadily narrower.

The main group that set out from Union Square stopped once they reached a penned-in area of sidewalk in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, opposite the Rockefeller tree lighting.

The chants continued in front of the high-end department store. There, the protesters were jostled back and forth as the tourists they’d displaced and others still arriving struggled to get in or out of the crowd. The non-protesters swiveled with their cameras, taking photos of demonstrators with their hands up, then angling to get shots of the Christmas tree.

An older white woman who had waded into the crowd, turned to the four younger women behind her. “Let’s just turn around,” she said in a mild Southern accent, “not the best day for shopping,” and the other women with her laughed and turned around.

A white police officer standing amid the crowd inside the barricade got his laughs a moment later. “It smells like pot,” a young blond woman said to him. “Protesters are smoking pot? I don’t believe it,” the officer said. Then, as tourists piled up in front of him, the officer gave a short chant of his own in time with the protesters: “Let them through! Let them through!” He was loud enough for his friend and those around him to hear.

Earlier in the night, a few blocks before the march stopped in front of Saks, one of the younger participants explained what the “no justice no peace!” chant meant to her.

“This isn’t to make justice or peace because evidently that’s not going to happen,” said Tandee, a 19-year-old black woman from Manhattan. “The point” of protesting, she said, “is to start conversation. The point is to show our presence and understanding.”

At a Chinese restaurant several blocks away, and out of earshot of the protests, the conversation had carried. I was waiting on my order, the people behind me were talking about Ferguson and New York, police abuse and racial injustice, over plates of noodles. Outside the restaurant, I picked it up again, different people but the same conversation.

Eric Hughes was having a smoke break and talking to a coworker. “I just feel that it should have went to a jury of his peers and they should have let the jury decide,” he said.

Hughes, a middle-age black man from Far Rockaway in Queens, has never been a part of any protests himself but supports them. “You have to give the people something, you can’t just outright say that the cop didn’t do anything wrong when you’ve got the world looking at a video of him choking a black guy and the black guy died.”

“I believe in peaceful protest, nonviolent protest. You know I don’t condone anything like in Ferguson,” he said.

“I’m not here to say that I’m against all cops,” Hughes said “I’ve met some who are decent, honest people. But then you have some that take their power to another level and those are the ones who need to be sought out and dealt with.”

To Hughes, dealing with them is straightforward. “A lot of cops need to be trained again on how to arrest somebody without killing them. If you can’t arrest a guy for selling cigarettes without killing him, you shouldn’t be on the police force.”