A city in turmoil

Police | New York’s mayor meets with pastors, as protestors surge across Manhattan following a grand jury decision in the death of Eric Garner
by Emily Belz
Posted 12/04/14, 08:06 am

NEW YORK—Across this city of more than 8 million, protestors gathered and chanted, “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African-American man and father of six who died in July after a New York Police Department officer put him in a chokehold. On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.

In contrast to the murky situation in Ferguson, Mo., the details of what happened to Garner are clear and the response has been unified across political lines, thanks in part to a video of his arrest and death. Officers approached Garner for selling loose cigarettes on the street in Staten Island, and as Garner protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong, an officer put him in a chokehold. Others pinned him to the ground. He soon became unconscious, and when EMTs arrived shortly after, they did not give him oxygen or try to resuscitate him.

The EMTs have been placed on leave along with the officers involved. For the past 20 years, chokeholds have been forbidden under NYPD policy because they have led to deaths. The New York medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. 

“[A] government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a statement. “We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African-American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.”

Rich Perez, the pastor of Christ Crucified Fellowship in New York’s Washington Heights tweeted, “To all my African-American brothers and sisters, we are here and we stand with you.” Christ Crucified plans to host prayer gatherings at homes around the city on Thursday, saying in its invitation to prayer, “As the church, we have the responsibility to be a voice for the oppressed; for those subjugated by standards that do not offer equity of life, dignity and honor. The truth is that the news we herald is for both the oppressed and the oppressor.”

African-American pastors in the city urged protestors to express themselves peacefully, advice protestors largely heeded. The NYPD made a few arrests for protestors blocking roadways, but mostly let them be. Most of the protests converged around Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, the most visible spot on Wednesday evening because of the annual lighting of the massive Christmas tree there. 

Throngs of protestors chanting, “Black lives matter!” wove their way through bewildered tourists at Rockefeller Center. Police set up blocks and blocks of barricades to try to route the protestors around the tree lighting, but they didn’t really need to; the blocks around the tree were already packed with so many tourists that the protestors could not squeeze in. 

“Looks like we’re not in the Christmas area; we’re in the ‘we hate cops’ area,” said one woman on Sixth Avenue who was trying to get to the tree with her friend. Protestors laid down on the ground to do “die-ins,” while around the corner, out-of-towners asked police officers to take photos with them and give them directions to Central Park. NYPD said that 83 people were arrested overnight in connection to the protests, most for disorderly conduct.

As news about the grand jury’s decision emerged on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his appearance at the Christmas tree lighting and instead organized a meeting with officials and clergy at Mount Sinai United Christian Church on Staten Island. Already, de Blasio had organized a meeting with local clergy back in August to discuss the city’s response to Garner’s death. 

“One chapter has closed with the decision of this grand jury,” de Blasio said. “There are more chapters ahead.” 

Pantaleo could still face federal charges for Garner’s death. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his likely replacement, Loretta Lynch (a longtime Brooklyn prosecutor), called de Blasio on Wednesday night to tell him the Department of Justice had opened an investigation and would look into federal civil rights charges.

In a remarkably similar case in 1994, an NYPD officer was sentenced to seven years in prison after putting Anthony Baez in a chokehold that killed him. Baez and his brothers had been throwing a football that hit an officer’s car. The officer had been acquitted in a state criminal trial but was later convicted of violating Baez’s civil rights by using “unreasonable force” against him. 

“The federal government will exercise its responsibilities here, and do a full and thorough investigation, and draw conclusions accordingly,” de Blasio said in his comments at the Staten Island church. 

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.

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