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'Hands Up, Don't Choke!': Non-Indictment in Garner Case Sparks Rallies Across New York

A Staten Island grand jury cleared an NYPD officer in the choking death of an unarmed black resident on Wednesday. Here's how the city reacted.

by Liz Fields
Dec 4 2014, 5:20pm

Photo by Alice Speri

On Wednesday night, rage, anguish and disbelief bubbled on the same sidewalks of New York City where a white police officer choked to death a black man accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.

Thousands of New Yorkers converged at major landmarks, blocking squares, highways and bridges, shortly after authorities announced that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted for putting Eric Garner, 43, in an illegal chokehold in Staten Island on July 17.

The decision marked the second grand jury non-indictment of a white police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man in less than two weeks. As the NYPD prepared for potential riots across the city, US Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to suppress clashes by announcing that federal authorities would launch a civil rights investigation into the death.

But the statement did nothing to quell the gathering demonstrations taking place across the city. At Manhattan's iconic Grand Central station, bodies littered the floor during a staged die-in, while others mulled around the jumble of prone people in the busy terminal chanting "I can't breathe" — the words Garner cried out as he was being choked.

Answering a call to converge at the Rockefeller Center, swarms of demonstrators took to 6th Avenue ahead of where the city's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony was to take place.

(Photos by Alice Speri/VICE News)

Some protesters managed to bypass authorities and burst into the square before police blocked off entryways into area, pushing others against barricades, while the demonstration diverted its march to the West Side Highway, blocking traffic near 51st Street.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his scheduled appearance at the Rockefeller tree lighting ceremony to meet with Garner's father and community leaders in Staten Island. De Blasio weighed in on the jury's decision last night, saying it was a "a very painful day," and that as the father of a black man, he would have "to talk to [his son] for years about the dangers that he may face" when encountering police.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said the decision "just tore me up," adding she couldn't believe the jury's verdict Wednesday, especially in light of the fact that a medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, determining that he had died due to "compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."

Garner's health issues, including obesity and asthma, were also deemed to be contributing factors in the examiner's report.

Meanwhile, people turned up at the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, scattering cigarettes and lighting candles in his memory. Many cried out, "Hands up, don't choke" — an echo of the slogan, "Hands up, don't shoot," which has become synonymous with the Ferguson protests.

Raw coverage of the Eric Garner protests in New York. Watch the VICE News video here.

In Times Square, where hundreds gathered days earlier to rally against the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson over the shooting death of teen Michael Brown, protesters blocked traffic as they moved through the well-lit square, carrying placards saying "Black lives matter" and "Fellow white people, wake up."

Traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge ground to a halt as demonstrators sat and chanted, "Shut it down, shut it down."

Around the country more protests broke out in Philadelphia, DC, San Francisco, and Oakland.

The protests were disruptive but generally peaceful. The NYPD said Thursday that at least 83 people had been arrested and police were aware of more protests planned in New York.

A coalition of civil rights leaders are also planning a meet in Harlem on Thursday to discuss the recent spate of black killings at the hands of police, including the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in late November and John Crawford, a black man who was shot in a Walmart after picking up an air rifle off the shelf in August.

Rice's death was mentioned at a press conference held by Attorney General Holder in Cleveland on Thursday, in which he announced the findings of a Department of Justice investigation into the Cleveland Police Department's use of deadly force and its general policing practices.

The report determined that "systematic deficiencies," "inadequate training," and "ineffective policies" were rampant in the CPD.  The use of excessive force by officers was especially troubling, creating deep mistrust and worsening racial tensions with minority communities in Cleveland.

"We saw too many incidents in which officers accidentally shot someone either because they fired their guns accidentally or because they shot the wrong person," Holder said.

For now, Pantaleo remains on desk duty, and has had his gun and badge taken away pending an internal investigation into the incident. The NYPD also announced Thursday it is set to make "significant changes" to protocol, including retraining for all officers in the use of force, as well as and implementing a bodycam pilot program.

Standing on the Tompkinsville pavement where Garner died, his mother remained skeptical that the changes would make any difference.

"The video camera didn't make a difference to the grand jury — what do we need body cameras for?" Carr told reporters in Staten Island. "It's a waste of money."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

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