Protests raged across the city last night, after a grand jury declined to indict an NYPD officer in connection with the July death of Eric Garner in police custody.
There were over 80 protest-related arrests last night and early this morning, according to a police spokesperson.
The announcement that officer Daniel Pantaleo wouldn’t stand trial provoked a strong reaction from activists, even though some anticipated the decision. “It somehow combines being not surprising but shocking,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). “There’s a sort of Orwellian quality to it. When you see what the cops did, and there’s no indictment?”
After the grand jury’s decision was announced, a protest was almost immediately scheduled to coincide with a planned Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center. Those who converged on Times Square encountered a heavy police presence.
“It was clear that police on the ground were told to do whatever they had to do to keep people away from Rockefeller Center,” said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who has studied the NYPD’s crowd control tactics.
“They used barricades and a large number of officers, and some arrests were made, but it was more of an attempt to push people onto the sidewalks,” he added.
One throng of protesters split off from the group that convened at Rockefeller Center, and marched north on Broadway. They stopped at Columbus Circle to stage a brief “die-in” before proceeding uptown.
Around 1,000 protesters formed a column several blocks long, marching through traffic, calling out several popular chants, including “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
One demonstrator recognized a friend and cheerfully adapted another chant used by the protesters. “I can’t breathe, boo!”she said, hugging her friend. The slogan is a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who suffered from asthma, and died when Pantaleo put him in what some believe was an intentional chokehold (his lawyer said he was trying to execute a takedown move he had learned in police academy) for refusing to cooperate when being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes.
The protesters swung west toward 10th Ave. and marched south. In the low 50s, after a brief debate, the bulk of the crowd headed to the West Side Highway. The only sign of the police at this point was a single helicopter, but when the marchers reached the highway and began blocking traffic in both lanes, police moved in from several directions. “This is the New York Police Department,” they repeated over loudspeakers. “You must get off the highway or we will arrest you.”
As officers began to surround the protesters, shouting could be heard and protesters appeared to be shoving with officers.
Despite the large turnout of police on the West Side Highway, Vitale said their response was largely restrained. “I think it’s been generally flexible, in order to avoid any escalation of conflict,” he said.
Regardless, the issue isn’t going anywhere. “My guess is, this is going to keep boiling for the foreseeable future. The political leaders saying, ‘we should be calm, there should be no violence,’ this is going to fall on deaf ears,” Gangi said, although he noted that any violence by protesters so far has targeted property, not people.
After most of the protests had died down, Jamel Mims, 28, gathered with a group of fellow activists to recount the night’s events. Mims had been at the Lincoln Tunnel, and witnessed a “stand-off” between protesters and “a few dozen pigs. Although I think that terminology is an insult to the farm animal.”
“People are out tonight taking out the message that this ends today,” Mims said. His message (“this ends today”) echoed some of Garner’s last words to the officers arresting him.
“Right on the heels of the non-indictment of the cop who murdered 18-year-old unarmed Michael Brown, this comes as a huge hit,” Mims said. “People are asking, why are people so angry? Why are they in the streets, blocking traffic, blocking highways, blocking tunnels? It’s because the murder of black and Latino youth continues to happen like business as usual. Well, no more business as usual until this shit stops.”
“They want us to go back to the Black Friday shopping and the Christmas tree lighting? Fuck that,” he said, inviting me to the protest planned for Thursday at 5:30pm at Foley Square.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Police Reform Organizing Project.