Hundreds of protesters marched over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan early on Thursday morning to decry a grand jury’s decision not to charge NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo with a crime for choking Gowanus native Eric Garner to death in Staten Island in July.
The swarm over the roadway of the iconic span began shortly after midnight, punctuating hours of marches and civil disobedience in Manhattan that blocked highways and major roads and snarled transit hubs. Video shot by an activist shows that police allowed the crowd onto the bridge and stood by as they stopped midway across and sat down in the road. After several minutes, a phalanx of dozens of police and squad cars brought up the rear and forced the protesters the rest of the way to Downtown, then blocked them from returning to the bridge. Officers say they cuffed 14 rabble-rousers on the Manhattan side of the span, but denied making any collars in Brooklyn, though video shows cops detaining at least one man.
The Garner decision came on the heels of protests nationwide, including a thousand-strong, traffic-stopping procession over the Manhattan Bridge, following a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed black teen Michael Brown dead in August.
Garner’s choking death was caught on tape, as were minutes of inaction by police and paramedics who milled around the unmoving man. Police say they stopped Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. Release of the footage sparked widespread outcry, which was again stoked by the grand jury finding that there was no probable cause to believe that Pantaleo committed a crime.
Following the Garner decision, Mayor DeBlasio echoed the outrage of the thousands who took to the streets, wondering rhetorically if his own mixed-race son might fall victim to unprovoked police violence.
“It’s a very emotional day for our city. It’s a very painful day for so many New Yorkers,” he said. “There are so many families in this city who feel that each and every night — is my child safe? And not just from some of the painful realities — crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods — but are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors?”
Public Advocate Letitia James stressed that the chokehold Pantaleo used to take Garner down as Garner wheezed “I can’t breathe” is banned by NYPD policy.
“Video footage of the incident clearly shows the banned chokehold that resulted in Mr. Garner’s death and the fact that there will be no public trial is shocking and unconscionable,” she said.
Councilman Jumaane Williams (D–East Flatbush) broke down crying when he got word of the decision, according to a Capital New York report.
One pol, however, declared that the grand jury’s opinion and Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan should be respected, and that everyone concerned should move on.
“There’s no question that this grand jury had an immensely difficult task before them, but I have full faith that their judgment was fair and reasoned and I applaud DA Donovan for overseeing this case with the utmost integrity,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R–Staten Island). “As we all pray for the Garner family, I hope that we can now move forward and begin to heal together as a community.”
Early this year, a federal Brooklyn grand jury voted to indict Grimm, who also represents Bay Ridge, on tax, immigration, and insurance fraud charges in connection with the Manhattan restaurant he co-owned prior to holding office. Grimm has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts.
The Justice Department is now investigating Garner’s death, and the Police Department is performing an internal investigation. Top brass at the department is also rolling out a retraining initiative, and is launching a pilot program to outfit officers with body cameras. In the wake of the grand jury decision, critics complained that even video proof of police misconduct cannot bring accountability in the corrupt legal system.