AFRICANGLOBE – New Yorkers took to the streets after a grand jury refused to indict New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner. Protests included a “die-in” in Grand Central Terminal, blocked streets in Midtown, and an attempt to cross the West Side Highway. A few arrests were reported. Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner while attempting to arrest him this summer for breaking up a fight. A video recording of the arrest sparked furious debate about police and community relations.
Among the protester signs were mentions of Ferguson and Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed this summer by thug cop Darren Wilson. An earlier grand jury decided not to indict Wilson last week, leading to a number of protests throughout the country, and the two deaths and their grand jury outcomes seemed linked, at least in time.
Around 6 pm ET Wednesday, a group of protesters left Union Square in lower Manhattan, heading to Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree there. Tensions were high when the protesters reached Midtown, taking over the streets at 6th Avenue and 47th Street, a busy business district in New York. Police pushed the group back using metal barricades wearing full riot gear. Many of the protesters were pushed by police officers and some were physically picked up and moved, including a reporter. The officers threatened to make arrests several times over a megaphone. After some time, the group moved out of 6th Avenue to allow traffic to pass, but continued blocking 47th Street. While most officers wore riot masks with thick, clear shields over their faces, one city worker wore only a hat and drove a barricade truck. “I’m just standing here making overtime!” he said.
Earlier in the day New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for peaceful protests of the decision. “Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want. Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way.”
De Blasio pointed to several police reforms this year as proof the police force was changing: New training on excessive force, a reduction of the “stop-and-frisk” program, and a decriminalization of marijuana.
One of tonight’s protesters, Robert Cammiso, felt the need to protest following the Eric Garner decision. He said, “As a high school teacher in Flatbush, with 95 percent African American students, it’s become more and more difficult having a discussion with them when this is the state of justice system.” Cammiso notes that many of his students were also moved to protest. “You have to convince them that this is something to engage in. As a teacher, it’s hard not to be furious at this decision.”
Another protester, Mike Pergola, who has worked for the Department of Sanitation for 24 years, was also out for the first time to protest. Pergola feels both grand juries made a mistake in not indicting the officers. “I followed the case from the beginning. I’ve been discussing it at work and with friends. Even people that didn’t feel the way I do about Ferguson, they came back and said that on [Garner], they couldn’t agree with the grand jury decision.” In Pergola’s line of work, he explained, many people become extremely close. “When a Black guy and white guy work together in a truck, you really get to know one another, you understand each other very well. Being behind a garbage truck is very democratizing.”
Tonight’s protest was full of students—groups from NYU, Columbia, the New School and Pace were noticeable among the crowd. Bridget Winkler, a 22 year old student at Pace, told said she was inspired to attend after seeing discussion of the Garner decision on social media, particularly Twitter. “I felt a moral implication to do this,” she said. Winkler also followed the situation in Ferguson but felt moved to protest for the first time because it was so close to home, “The location really impacted me, the events of the last two weeks made everyone fed up.”
Erica Basco, who works for an HIV/AIDS prevention organization, has been protesting for the last several weeks, attending a large gathering in Albany just last week in protest of the Wilson grand jury decision. Basco told us, “I think there are a lot of similarities between the two cases. This is especially difficult because of the camera footage. I was shocked he was not indicted. I think people thought body cameras would be structural change through government to improve the situation but that video footage doesn’t seem to matter.” Basco, like Winkler, felt a moral duty to protest and said she had learned a great deal about the justice system along the way. “I realized how native about the system I was.” She hopes a federal decision will be made to charge both officers and that a system of accountability is set up to prevent racial profiling by police officers.
Whiners Martinez, 21, who happened into protests near Times Square, said that as a young Black man, he often confronts harassment from police, such as being told to move out of public spaces. “I think it’s wrong what they’re doing to people.”
By 9 pm, crowds in midtown had thinned. Police officers were careful to keep things calm around the tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. They set up a bag check on 50th street, the main entrance to the tree, and protesters were generally calm in the area. Many protesters held balloons to signify they were part of the gathering.
Though things settled after several hours in midtown and on the east side of the city, on the West Side Highway, preventing cars from driving along it.