Protesters across the nation swarmed city streets on Thursday to voice outrage and their demands for police and judicial reform in the wake of Eric Garner’s death and the refusal by a grand jury to indict the officer who put a chokehold on him.
From One Police Plaza in New York City to Oakland, Calif., and from Savannah, Ga., to the Twin Cities, people unhappy with the lack of an indictment in the July death of Garner, 43, continued to stop traffic, stage “die ins” in which groups of people lay down on sidewalks or floors and otherwise protest peacefully.
They communicated and shared photos of their efforts and emotions on social media, making #ICantBreathe a trending hashtag. On a cellphone video of the chokehold incident in Staten Island, Garner, an asthmatic, is heard saying “I can’t breathe” to at least eight times after Officer Daniel Pantaleo administered the chokehold.
In Manhattan, a multi-racial crowd marched down Broadway, sometimes blocking taxi cabs and buses, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” an homage to Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black man fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in August.
A grand jury’s decision last month not to indict the police officer in that incident set off the national wave of protests, prompting many to question the way grand juries conduct themselves and the U.S. justice system overall.
Crowds also gathered at Foley Square, home to local, state and federal courthouses, and near City Hall.
Wells Thorne, 23, was among those in the Foley Square crowd and said it was her first time attending a protest.
“I think it’s crucial that people … come out and make their voices heard,” said Thorne, of Manhattan, who held a cardboard sign that read, “Black Lives Matter.” “Frankly, the system is rigged against black people,” she said.
As protests remained peaceful in New York and elsewhere, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised his department for its handling of the protests and sought to assure residents that new training for the NYPD would reduce the use for force by officers.
“We are changing how our officers talk with residents of the city, changing how they listen, slowing down some interactions that sometimes escalated too quickly,” he said.
De Blasio said the bottom line is that officers will be “using less force whenever possible.”
The three-day retraining course, which had already begun, involves officers of all ranks.
The protests that erupted Wednesday followed a week of demonstrators in many U.S. cities after the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case.
In the Staten Island case, the medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and charges could have ranged from murder to reckless endangerment.
De Blasio said officers are being retrained with new techniques on how to deal with the public.
“Every interaction that every officer has with their fellow officers after they are trained again will be different, and will multiply many times over,” he said. The training, he said, “will change the future of this city.”
At the same time, the mayor praised police handling of protesters Wednesday at a time when “emotions were tremendously high.”
Calling the police actions “smart, strategic, agile,” de Blasio said officers showed “a lot of restraint” but made arrests when necessary.
A group of national civil rights leaders, responding to the protests, announced plans for a “jobs and justice” march in Washington on Dec. 13 and a summit early next year to build a national coalition of people “committed to forceful change, in peaceful and constructive methods.”
Marc Morial of the Urban League announced the “2015 action plan” following a meeting in Harlem with some 20 civil rights leaders, including Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Cornell Brooks of the NAACP. Morial called the Staten Island grand jury’s decision a “travesty of justice.”
In Washington, President Obama said Thursday he spoke with de Blasio about events surrounding the grand jury’s decision.
Obama, who assigned a task force to examine police practices in the wake of the Ferguson incident, said the nation needs to make sure that law enforcement officials “are serving everybody equally” and with “a sense of common purpose” among all people.
“At some level, everybody is our kid,” Obama said at a college affordability summit. “Everybody is our responsibility.”
Garner, a heavyset father of six, died after being wrestled to the ground by officers who had confronted him on a sidewalk in Staten Island on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges, but he gave no details on the grand jury testimony.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal prosecutors would conduct their own investigation of Garner’s death.
The New York Police Department is doing an internal probe that could lead to administrative charges against Pantaleo, who remains on desk duty.
In another development, a judge released bare-bones information about the Staten Island grand jury, saying the panel spent nine weeks examining the case, heard from 50 witnesses, including 22 civilians, and saw 60 exhibits, including four videos.
Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, was quick to condemn the grand jury’s decision and said the pressure for change would continue. “The fight isn’t over — it’s just begun,” she said.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said she was “truly disappointed” in the grand jury’s ruling. Speaking to protesters, she said, “We want you to rally but rally in peace.”
Esaw Garner pointedly rejected an apology by Pantaleo, who said in a statement issued Wednesday that it was “never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
“My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss,” the officer said.
When asked at a public gathering Wednesday night if she accepted the officer’s condolences, the widow responded, “Hell no. The time for remorse was when my husband was living and breathing.”
Stuart London, Pantaleo’s lawyer, told WCBS Radio that the officer was trying to bring Garner to the ground because he was afraid they would both crash through a storefront glass window in the struggle.
“He was attempting to do a takedown move that he was taught in the academy. He never meant to apply any force to his neck,” London told WCBS Radio.
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer also argued that he used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned chokehold, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
Contributing: Associated Press
SOURCE: Melanie Eversley and Charisse Jones