"I Can't Breathe": Eric Garner's Plea Becomes Rallying Cry for Justice
Following latest high-profile non-indictment of police officer, protests explode and New York City and beyond
Though a coroner classified his death a "homicide" and a video captured police surrounding the man while one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, placed the chokehold on Eric Garner that would end his life, a grand jury's decision on Wednesday not to return an indictment in the case spurred outrage nationwide and a night of street protests across New York City and other communities.
"I can't breathe," became the rallying cry of thousands of New Yorkers who marched in midtown Manhattan throughout the night. In the video documenting his death, Garner repeated that phrase multiple times to officers before he succumbed to his injuries. As the demonstrators marched, staged die-ins, and blocked traffic along major thoroughfares, many said their anger, frustration and sadness is not reserved for this one case, but against a system they say refuses to hold police accountable for a pattern of abusive behavior that too often turns deadly for young people of color.
Reports indicate the dozens of protesters were arrested throughout the night. The pervasive mood, though fueled by the expressed anger of demonstrators, was notably peaceful and non-violent according to most reporting.
"[Garner's family] wants peace, they'll get peaceful protest," one protester, 32-year-old Jayson Williams of Staten Island, told the Huffington Post. "But the NYPD should want peace too. And our justice system should want justice. If an unarmed man is killed, the person who killed him should go to trial."
Though unique in its particulars, few see the Garner case as an isolated incident. The grand jury announcement in New York comes on the heels of a separate non-indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month. Brown was unarmed and witnesses testified that his hands were up when he was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. Many protesters could be heard chanting, "Garner and Brown, Shut it down!" as they marched throughout the night.
As the Guardian reports:
Keiha Souley, 35, was driving his taxi cab on Broadway when protesters blocked traffic. As he chanted along with demonstrators, he said he did not mind the delay.
“You’ve got to stand up sometime,” he said.
In one of several “die-ins”, demonstrators lay in silence on a pavement about a block from where the Christmas tree lighting ceremony was under way at Rockefeller Center. Police blockaded the street, preventing marchers from interrupting the nationally televised event.
About 1,000 people packed into the ornate main hall of Grand Central Terminal for a noisy but peaceful protest.
On Staten Island, near the site where Garner was apprehended, Daniel Skelton, a black 40-year-old banker, spoke loudly as he voiced his outrage: “A black man’s life just don’t matter in this country”.
Though the grand jury decision brought to an end the local investigation into Garner's case, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday evening the Justice Department will initiate a federal civil rights and criminal probe into the case.
In a statement released after the grand jury announcement, Officer Pantaleo expressed his apologies to Eric Garner's family for the loss of life and said he had "no intention of harm anyone." Subsequently, Garner's widow, Esaw Garner, appeared at a press conference and said that an apology simply wasn't good enough.
Her husband, Garner said, "should be here celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything else with his children and grandchildren. And he can't. Why? Because a cop did wrong. Someone that gets paid to do right, did wrong and he's not held accountable for it."
"But," she added, "my husband's death will not be in vain. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will fight the fight until the end."
The anger and demand for true justice was echoed in the streets throughout the night and captured on Twitter under the hashtag #EricGarner:
Video captured protests across New York City.
Die-in protest at Grand Central Station:
Later, in Times Square:
Mid-town Manhattan, New York City:
VICE News released three hours of raw footage from their night of coverage: