NEW YORK — The protests were already planned. The frustration was already in place. On Wednesday, after a nine-day stretch in which Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson avoided charges in the death of black teenager Michael Brown and a 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer, hundreds took to the streets of New York to protest the decision not to charge a city police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Garner died July 17, after New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo was filmed placing him in what appeared to be a chokehold during an arrest. A Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in that case has made New York the latest flash point amid nationwide anger over the relationship between law enforcement and black people in America.
In Times Square, hours after the decision was announced, about 250 protesters gathered just north of the neon-signed NYPD precinct. Many were holding “once again”-themed black signs: Once again, no justice; once again, enraged.
They began by asking those gathered to put their hands up in solidarity with Ferguson protesters, who just nine days ago, in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, taken their rage to the streets of a St. Louis suburb in violent confrontations with police.
Then came the chants: “The people united will never be defeated.” “No justice, no peace.”
“We want a public trial/all we’ve gotten is denial.”
And then: “I can’t breathe” — Garner’s final words.
Then, it was quiet again.
Demonstrations began at Grand Central Station around 4:30 p.m., when protesters staged a “die in.” A separate demonstration began at Times Square at 5; another began at Union Square a few hours later.
Protesters also signaled their intention to interrupt the annual tree lighting in Rockefeller Plaza. Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced Wednesday that he was canceling plans to attend the ceremony, where thousands were expected to mass, including celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey and Cyndi Lauper. The mayor addressed the public in an afternoon news conference instead.
Across the city, in Staten Island, Ben Garner stood at the site of his son’s death and urged demonstrators to keep calm.
Around 7:30 p.m., about 450 people stood on the west side of the street, while the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony remained inaccessible thanks to dozens of police and a long line of barricades on 6th Avenue. The crowd was reportedly calm, though police made arrests in the streets near Rockefeller Plaza, according to Twitter.
Chants of “Shut it down!” competed with “We Shall Overcome” at the new epicenter of the protests, 47th Street — also known as the Diamond District.
A livestream broadcast of gatherings across the city can be viewed here.
Kim Ortiz, who does organizing with Copwatch in the Bronx, was pumping her fist to the chant of the protesters. Her organization does what the name indicates: paying attention to police activity.
“Eric Garner’s case was public because of the video,” she said, “but it happens all the time.” Asked whether she’d gone to the Ferguson protests, she said she had. “I feel like it’s the same rage, just a different victim.”
Five police, two black, stood nearby.
Within moments of the grand jury decision, protesters in Ferguson took to the streets — and several of the most vocal young activists scrambled to book plane tickets to New York.
Those in the St. Louis are – where more than 100 days of protests have kept attention on the topic of policing in communities of color – have built ties with activists across the country and with the families of other black men killed by police, including Garner.
The Ferguson protesters, still enraged by last week’s grand jury decision in Missouri, almost immediately announced plans for a nighttime march and acts of civil disobedience.
Activists elsewhere aired their frustrations and solidarity online. On Wednesday, Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — had become a symbol of their pain. The reaction was swift and pronounced, with many calling for protest and action.
The New York chapter of the NAACP released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that Pantaleo should have been indicted for “deliberately and recklessly” causing Garner’s death. The organization called on the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges against the officer.
In a phone interview, Hazel Nell Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, said she planned to gather peacefully with other protesters at Grand Central Station on Wednesday evening. She said organizers were disappointed by the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo in Garner’s death but had asked protesters to remain peaceful.
“I’m terribly upset,” Dukes said. “I have watched that video over 20 times, and each time I have just been overwhelmed by it. Now to talk about his obesity and asthma when the man was pleading for his life just don’t make any sense. This is outrageous.”
Douglas Davis, a black college professor, came to Times Square for the protest. He hadn’t been to any of New York’s Ferguson protests.
“What’s happening now is very similar to what my parents and grandparents experienced with lynchings — but it’s happening within the system itself,” said Davis, whose family is from South Carolina. “I find it hard to put into words what continues to happen.”
After leaving Times Square, protesters quickly got swallowed up by larger, quieter crowds doing holiday shopping or heading to the tree lighting. As it does for big events, the NYPD shut down several major avenues, making it difficult to impossible to get over to Rockefeller Plaza. Lining 6th Avenue, protesters encountered scores of police, most of them standing quietly and chatting.
One protester, a white man, walked by and called the police murderers. One officer smiled, irritating his accuser. A young black woman approached moments later with a question for the officers: “How do I get to the tree lighting?”
Soon, the crowd at 30 Rockefeller Center had mostly dissipated. Rachel Germany, with her son Langston on her shoulders, watched the stragglers. “It’s an outrageous decision after an outrageous decision involving police and people of color, I had to come, and I had to bring my son.”
Miguel Fermin came out to the protest after work. “I’m tired,” he said. “I’m a blue collar worker. I pay my taxes. We’re just tired.” Fermin has an eight-month old daughter and a 12 year-old son. He’d yelled his support for the police standing watch, saying “This is not about you. This is about justice.”
“If something happens to my son,” he said, “these are the first people I’d run to. But I took my time to come out here for my kids.” His son was doing his homework as Fermin prepared to leave for the protest. “He asked me, ‘what does indictment mean?'”
A bus pulled away and the police stirred. Fermin laughed. “The tourists are gone, and here come the batons!”
Later in the evening, protesters took to West Side Highway, where police were attempting to clear the road and reportedly arrested demonstrators.
As the protests continued, the Daily News (which had obtained the video of Garner’s arrest that led to widespread outrage over the summer) tweeted the image of their front page for tomorrow. Their headline includes the same mantra that demonstrators chanted:
Holley reported from Washington, Lowery from Ferguson. Elahe Izadi contributed.
[This post has been updated multiple times.]