Thousands of demonstrators returned to the streets of New York last night to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in July. For hours the marches fanned out across the city, snarling traffic in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, and leading to more than two hundred arrests. The charges included disorderly conduct and obstructing vehicular traffic, according to the New York Police Department.
The events marked the second night of unrest following the grand jury decision, which has sparked protests nationwide against police brutality and what some see as the institutionalized racism of the criminal justice system.
Now familiar chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” rang out until early this morning, as demonstrators accumulated sporadically in Union Square, Foley Square, and Times Square, along the West Side Highway and in front of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Police maintained a strong presence, but struggled at times to keep pace with the marches, which shut down the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges and the Holland Tunnel at various points in the night.
Everywhere, anger and disbelief at the grand jury’s decision were on display. “I don’t know why I’m shocked but I’m shocked,” said Jessica Freeman, 32, as a crowd of hundreds chanted and waved signs in Union Square. “I can’t believe this is real life.”
“It’s really unreal to me,” added her friend Tiffany Pickens, 35. “Like we’re going backward, not forward.”
Around 6 p.m., the protest began moving south on Broadway, flanked by a cordon of police officers on mopeds, and made its way to Foley Square, where it merged with another large group of demonstrators. The now several thousand protesters surged forward, first to NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza, then onto the eastern roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge.
There, family members of Ramarley Graham and Mohamed Bah, two other black men who were killed by NYPD officers in recent years, led the demonstration across the bridge and into Brooklyn. Trailed by a wake of cardboard coffins, the bereaved leaders of the march repeated their calls of outrage to an audience of silent and passive police escorts.
“As far as I’m concerned, these are still lynchings,” said Yvette Rennie, who declined to give her age. “Not lynchings with a rope and a tree, but with the hands of some racist police officers.” Rennie recalled protesting NYPD brutality back in the 1980s, and expressed shock that, 30 years later, she still has reason to do so. “It’s 2014,” she said. “My grandchildren have to pick up the same battle.”
The protesters pressed on into downtown Brooklyn, at times uncertain of their route or destination. These vacillations may reflect what Mojique Tyler of the group Students United Against Police Brutality described as a lack of coordination among the event’s planners. “Going forward, we need to be more organized,” he said, and listed off the numerous groups that were leading the protest in some way and that may have inadvertently pulled it in different directions. “It split the march into about 10 different pieces over the course of the night.”
The police allowed the main group of protesters to continue to march deeper into Brooklyn, even to walk against oncoming traffic — a display of tolerance and passivity that surprised some at the demonstration. After arriving at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, the protesters, now numbering once again in the hundreds, staged a “die-in” before turning around and marching back toward Manhattan.
Nadine Nottingham, 53, watched the raucous but peaceful procession from the middle of the street. The protesters had blocked the bus she was riding home, but she wasn’t upset. “People are expressing the way they feel, and that’s a good thing.”