Hundreds of protesters took to the streets across New York City and in other cities Wednesday evening after a Staten Island grand jury said it would not indict a white police officer in the death of a black man, a decision that prompted Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to announce the opening of a federal civil rights investigation.
The grand jury declined to bring charges in the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man who died in July after a New York police officer placed him in an apparent chokehold during an arrest.
The decision struck many protesters as a chilling and frustrating repetition of events in Ferguson, Mo., where a grand jury last month said it would not indict the white officer who killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old. The Brown case ignited waves of protests and a national debate over the treatment that African American men receive at the hands of law enforcement officers.
The country has been confronted with a series of images of unarmed black men who have died after encounters with police: video of Garner grappling with officers on a sidewalk, pictures of Brown’s body lying in a street and surveillance footage of a black 12-year-old in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot after a police officer mistook his BB gun for a firearm.
Holder, in announcing the federal civil rights investigation of the Staten Island case, sought to tamp down the furor in New York.
“Mr. Garner’s death was one of several recent incidents across our great country that tested our sense of trust, ” he said. Holder said the vast majority of officers perform “honorably” and “it’s for their sake as well that we must seek to heal the breakdown in trust.”
President Obama, speaking earlier at an event in Washington, declined to comment specifically about the Staten Island case, referring instead to his plans to promote better relations between police and those they serve. Those efforts included an initial round of White House meetings.
“We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” Obama said. “We are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. And in some cases, those may be misperceptions, but in some cases that’s a reality.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) called on New Yorkers to respect the grand jury’s decision.
“During this tense time in New York, it must be noted and remembered that no organization has done more to safeguard the lives of young African Americans in New York City than the NYPD,” King said. Speaking on CNN, King also pointed to Garner’s physical condition as a factor in his death. “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died for this,” he said.
Garner, a father of six and grandfather of two, died July 17 after Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in what appeared to be a chokehold during an arrest that was recorded on videos that have been widely seen and have contributed to the public anger. In the Ferguson case, the facts of the fatal encounter between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson remain subject to dispute, but the Staten Island videos offer greater insight into the circumstances of Garner’s death.
In one video, obtained by the New York Daily News, Garner is approached by officers, apparently for selling loose cigarettes. After a confrontation, Pantaleo places Garner in what appears to be a chokehold. Garner repeatedly tells the officer he cannot breathe. A second video shows Garner lying motionless on the ground for several minutes as officers wait for emergency personnel.
Other officers who were present during the confrontation did not face indictment because they were offered immunity in exchange for their testimony.
At Times Square on Wednesday evening, Kim Ortiz, an organizer with Copwatch in the Bronx, pumped her fist to the chant of protesters shouting, “Shut it down.” She said she had participated in recent protests over the lack of a prosecution in the Ferguson case. “I feel like it’s the same rage, just a different victim,” she said.
Garner’s wife and mother, speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday evening, expressed their outrage at the decision. “Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?” asked Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, referring to the grand jury.
Esaw Garner said she can’t escape the images of her husband’s death.
“Every day I try to look at TV to keep my mind off of, you know,” she said, “but every time I turn the TV on, I see that video.”
“It was like a modern-day lynching,” she said. “They had it out for him.”
Carr welcomed the federal investigation and called for nonviolence. “Yes, we want you to rally, but do it in peace,” she said at a news conference. “Make a statement, but make it in peace.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) told reporters that it was “a very emotional day” for the city. “It’s a very painful day for so many New Yorkers,” he said. “We’re grieving again over the loss of Eric Garner.”
Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said: “Although my client is gratified that the Staten Island grand jury found in his favor, he is well aware that there was a loss of life in this case, so there are no winners. The Garner family, the wife and children, are in his prayers. And he is relieved to put this stage of the case behind him.”
The New York Police Department bans the use of the chokehold, and London said the officer used an approved take-down move, which he had learned in the police academy, because Garner was resisting arrest.
“There was no pressure ever applied to his throat or neck area,” London said. Pantaleo remains on modified assignment on Staten Island.
The city medical examiner’s office has classified Garner’s death as a homicide because of the “compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The office also mentioned Garner’s asthma and hypertensive cardiovascular disease as contributing factors.
The mayor noted that the grand jury decision was not the end of investigations into the incident, saying the police department will conduct its own probe in addition to the Justice Department’s efforts.
Protests had been planned in advance of the grand jury decision. Shortly after several news media outlets reported the decision, activists on Twitter spread the word about demonstrations at several locations in Manhattan.
What had been a series of small protests around the city eventually became a march of about 5,000 people down Broadway and then Eighth Avenue into Times Square. As the crowd moved down Eighth Avenue, immobilized drivers occasionally honked in support. Some gave protesters high-fives. In one SUV, an older white man had his hands raised in solidarity.
Some protesters also poured onto the West Side Highway, disrupting traffic.
The New York Times and CNN reported that 30 people were arrested during the demonstrations.
In Washington, a few dozen people gathered in front of the White House, joining others and forming a group of at least 100 people chanting, “No justice, no peace. No racist police.”
Protesters in Ferguson also quickly took to the streets, and several of the community’s most vocal young activists scrambled to book plane tickets to New York.
At one point Wednesday night, a man in a minivan drove through a crowd of demonstrators in Ferguson and a woman who had hopped onto the hood fell off. Protesters surrounded the minivan, and the man waved a handgun at them. Police took the man into custody.
Activists in St. Louis — whose 115 days of protests have fueled the debate over policing in communities of color — have built ties with activists across the nation and the families of other black men killed by police, including Garner.
Authorities may make public the evidence that was considered by the grand jury.
The Richmond County district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., is seeking a court order that would allow him to release “specific information in connection with this grand jury investigation,” a statement said. According to Donovan’s office, “Over 38 interviews were conducted, yielding 22 civilian witnesses who reported to have seen some part of the interaction between Eric Garner and members of the NYPD.”
Philip Bump in New York and Sari Horwitz, Peter Holley, Wesley Lowery, Clarence Williams and Julie Zauzmer in Washington contributed to this report.