New York Exploded in Protests for Eric Garner Last Night

People flooded the streets in response to the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict the cop who placed Garner in the choke hold the led to his death last July.

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Dec 4 2014, 3:20pm

Photos by ​Pete Voelker

"How do you spell racism? N-Y-P-D."

It's been four hours since a grand jury on Staten Island decided ​against indicting Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in July. The streets surrounding Rockefeller Center in Manhattan are crammed with people who are either here to see the annual Christmas tree lighting or to protest the death of yet another unarmed black man by a white police officer. And the mood is tense, as NYPD police officers blankly stare at people calling them racists and murderers.

Earlier, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined high-ranking officials in a small church on Staten Island, a few blocks from where Garner was fatally confronted by cops this summer. The mayor spoke somberly to the crowd, appearing choked up at times, and called for peace during the protests.

"Nonviolent social activism is the only thing that has ever worked," the mayor said after teasing a federal Department of Justice probe into the case. "And the Garner family has made that abundantly clear. Michael Brown's family made that abundantly clear. People should listen to those we say we stand in solidarity with, fulfill their wishes and work for change the right way."

And for the most part, that's what happened. The streets of New York City erupted in protest throughout the night, with throngs of people spreading as far uptown as Harlem and far as west as the Hudson River. Reports of sporadic arrests—which were notably nowhere near the number of people collared at Occupy Wall Street—came through, and cops were equipped with plastic handcuffs and billy clubs, but barely used them.  (The NYPD said early Thursday that some 83 people were arrested in the protests.)

The protest methods varied: Some crowds walked right into oncoming traffic on Park Avenue, with dozens of cops tailing them, while others shut down entire roads, even Broadway. Several times, the crowds converged on Times Square, hands raised, yelling the line now synonymous with the death of Eric Garner: "I can't breathe!"

"I feel disgusted to be a New Yorker today," Patrick Waldo, a protester originally from Virginia, told me. "I am disappointed to live in a city when a police officer who killed someone illegally in public, in broad daylight, can walk free."

This past summer, Waldo had marched alongside Esaw Garner, Eric's wife, on Staten Island. He said he felt "depressed" when he heard the news Monday, but more shocked that a person could be illegally put in a chokehold, slammed to the ground, and kneed in the chest, on video for all to see, without the perpetrator even coming to trial. That's why he's out here.

"I hope 50 years from now, when kids learn about Eric Garner on Wikipedia," he told me," there will be an anecdote attached that said, 'People all over organized mass protests in response.' When asked what he thought of the mayor's words, Waldo said, "He's scared."

Another protester I spoke with named Dan (who omitted his last name) wore a cardboard hat that spelled out the names of Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown (all black males killed by the cops in the past few months) on each side. He was a bit disappointed with the protest's overall set-up; it was too docile and organized for him. "In-box," is how he described it. To remedy that, he wanted to "make Ferguson in NYC," which was NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton's worst night​mare.

"The best protests happened out of box," Dan told me. "No meeting time, no set place, nothing. We need to get more out of our box; every type of protest here is controlled. Let's make it happen! It was on camera!"

Dan said the mayor's call for calm was a "gimmick," and his friend, Joe, who also didn't want to give his last name, said. De Blasio was "weak as shit," Joe added—the mayor's deference to the cops shows that "the NYPD run this city."

"These protests... it's as if the city is saying, 'OK, do this, but don't do more than that,'" Dan added. "'Don't rock the boat too much.' I'm about to take 50 people and start moving."

Soon after, down on 47th Street and Sixth Avenue, the crowd grew agitated as more cops appeared as if from nowhere to tame the masses. A smirk by one officer led loads of people to yell, "What the fuck are you laughing about?!" and another protester started to shake the barricade, yelling that he was "tired of this fucking shit."

A number of people splintered off, forming a line that walked to Grand Central Terminal, the site of an earlier "die-in," which had dozens of supporters laying on the ground of the massive transportation hub, imitating Garner's cold, dead body. The protestors were able to walk among taxi cabs and buses free of harm—something that would have been incomprehensible during the Bloomberg years—and one guy even threw a dumpster in the middle of the road.

That's when I caught up with Akil Gibbons, another protester who had arrived just an hour before. "I wasn't surprised when I heard the verdict—there's been so many killings in these last three months," he told me. "This is New York City. It'll still be as racist and as corrupt as ever."

But Gibbons conceded that he's noticed a change from the cops, in terms of how they control crowds. He does believe de Blasio is on his side, but he's still not sure what that means.

"I don't know what he is going to tell his kids tonight," he told me. "They're all black! The great part about it is that he has to tell his family tonight about all of this."

At the press conference that afternoon, de Blasio had responded to that frustration, and did exactly what critics argued President Obama failed to do after Ferguson: act human.

"I couldn't help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante," the mayor said, referring to his interracial son. "Life could never be the same thereafter, and I could feel how it will never be whole again—things will never be whole again for Mr. Garner."

And last night, at least for a few hours, neither was New York City.

Follow John Surico on ​Twitter.

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