Hordes of protesters blocked traffic, shut down bridges, and offered up plenty of scorn for police across New York City late Thursday, a second straight night of rage after a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict the cop whose choke hold killed Eric Garner in July.
Hundreds were arrested, and the occasional scuffle broke out, but the protests remained mostly peaceful even as the tone veered from "Hands up, don't shoot!" to "Hands up, shoot back!" by night's end.
The activism was defined in part by a pervasive sense of exhaustion—the non-indictment came just a week and change after a Ferguson grand jury similarly refused to charge Officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and New Yorkers have been protesting police shootings of minorities for decades with little impact.
"People are just tired of feeling like their lives don't matter, there's no accountability for a system that consistently oppresses people of color in this country," Lina D, a Manhattan attorney, said as protests kicked off in the evening.
The need for a systemic overhaul of the criminal justice system in America was clear to many of those in attendance. When a police killing is caught on tape and a local prosecutor—in this case Staten Island DA Dan Donovan—has a political interest in avoiding coming down too harshly on his cops, you know we're in trouble.
"Part of what needs change is the system for prosecuting police officers in cases of misconduct and homicide," City Councilman Brad Lander of Park Slope, Brooklyn, said. "It's become very clear that you simply can't have local district attorneys responsible for the prosecution of police misconduct in their jurisdictions when they rely entirely on the relationship with local police to do their jobs. It's a structural conflict."
Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to preempt the protests, or at least deflate them, by venturing to a new police academy in Queens to address the public Thursday afternoon. He offered some vague praise for Wednesday's initial outburst of indignation, during which hundreds gathered across Gotham. As he stood alongside Commissioner William J. Bratton, Mayor de Blasio also praised the NYPD for acting appropriately (83 arrests were reported Wednesday) with crowd control. And it does seem to be true that this iteration of New York's finest is somewhat less antagonistic toward street protests than that of Ray Kelly, Bratton's predecessor.
De Blasio also promised a new era of policing, mainly in the form of retraining the nation's largest police force—or at least 22,000 of its officers.
"People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives," he declared. His message was simple: Change is coming, even if the details on the retraining effort remain scarce.
But in Foley Square, those words had clearly fallen on deaf ears, as thousands of people converged across from the US Federal Court in Downtown Manhattan. They also gathered in nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and in Times Square. One contingent of marchers claimed the Brooklyn Bridge, and die-ins—laying down on the ground to halt traffic—were a common sight.
The crowd swelled with groups of all kinds, from Socialists to immigration groups, all sharing a common vitriol towards the police officers surrounding the perimeter. And the families of Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Anthony Baez, and Mohamad Bah—victims of the NYPD's excesses over the years—stood in the middle of it all, calling for immediate results, not long-term policy goals.
"It's nothing to sneeze about," Councilman Jumaane Williams, the sponsor of the Community Safety Act, which installed an Inspector General for the NYPD, said of the new training. "I want to hear how the police will change the way they approach crime in these neighborhoods, where we need better housing, jobs, and education."
Talking to protesters throughout the night, they shared Jumaane's sentiment: sure, of course, retraining is a good thing, but still, an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer. On film. And, in the end, there were absolutely no repercussions for his actions, though Garner's death was initially ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. In other words, this is cultural, rather than something that can be solved with a few new rules or regulations.
With his daughter, Angelica, on his shoulders, Chris Van Dyke explained why he had joined the protesters on Thursday night, who, by that point, had spilled out onto Lafayette Street, stopping rush hour traffic for the time being. "I'm a public high school teacher, and my students look like Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell," he said.
"It's a step that should be taken," he added of retraining efforts. "But in this specific case, he was using a chokehold, which is already not allowed. At some point, the legal system needs to step in. I think training will help, but sometimes police officers go outside the training and need to be held accountable."
That's why, in addition to retraining, legal pressure has mounted for the appointment of a special prosecutor by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He or she would essentially reconvene the grand jury, except, many critics argue, without the bias of Staten Island's DA—a move that Councilman Antonio Reynoso, the sponsor of the Right to Know Act, which would require police officials to inform suspects of their reasons for a stop, fully supports.
"I'm hoping training will help, but still, when officers get off for something like this case, we need more significant reform," he said as protesters began to flood the area outside of City Hall. "A special prosecutor would be the reform we need in this process."
Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, disagreed. "I think special prosecutors are complicated; they're not a solution by any means," she said. "Certainly, we have serious concerns about the fact that the homicide was captured on video and there's no prosecution."
Regardless, she applauded the retraining efforts as "the right thing to do." "They've been telling us they're going to do retraining in de-escalation," she said. "We've never heard that from the police department in the past… We're going to see what the training consist of."
But protester Carey Tan wasn't so easily convinced by the mayor's promises. She represented another main undercurrent of disapproval within the crowds, who were quickly making their way towards the Holland Tunnel via Canal Street. It was a feeling most extremely represented in another protester's sign that read, "De Blasio, Blood is on Your Hands." Once a supporter of his, Tan said she will not be voting for Mayor Bill de Blasio next election cycle.
"'OK, well you said you would reform stop-and-frisk, and then appointed Bratton and his broken windows policing,'" she said. "And broken windows is just another excuse to justify harassing people. de Blasio has just put a polished veneer on it. It's not a training thing."
As the protests spread to the Staten Island Ferry and up Broadway, it didn't seem as if that resentment towards the establishment and its varied measures of calming unrest was cooling down anytime soon. Occupy-style chants were everywhere, the crowd getting whiter and more left-wing as the hour grew late.
Even if the video of his death is now a permanent fixture of our history, Eric Garner was still very much alive and well in the minds of New Yorkers—not to mention people around the country, as protests sprang up in cities like Boston and Chicago.
"This shit is not over, my brother," one protester, Luss, who omitted his last name, said. "We will be out here every day. Ain't nothing to be afraid of anymore."