NEWARK – Last week, more than 200 protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” in Newark as they demonstrated against a grand jury’s decision to not indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri in August. On Thursday, a similarly-sized group in the same place had a new chant: “I can’t breathe,” which were among the last words spoken by Eric Garner, an African-American man who died after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer during a scuffle on Staten Island in July. Another grand jury failed to indict that police officer on Wednesday, leading to a wave of protests around the nation.
“Honk those horns! Let them hear you in Staten Island!” said Lawrence Hamm, the New Jersey state chairman and founder of the People’s Organization for Progress, a grassroots, community organization based in Newark, “We are outraged by the decision of the grand jury, but the struggle for justice for Eric Garner is not over. We want civil rights charges filed.”
While Hamm and other protesters called for civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer accused of putting Garner in a chokehold, others present at the Newark protest called for even deeper changes involving the police.
“We’re here because we have a crisis in the United States, and it’s called police brutality, and it’s called a lack of police accountability,” said Udi Ofer, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey. “We’re sick and tired of politicians making promises of police reforms and absolutely nothing happening. We want action. We want the appointment of special prosecutors for police killings. We want an end to the police policing itself, and we want a civilian oversight of our police departments. We want a new commitment to justice and transparency.”
Newark has seen its own push for police reform intensify in recent months.
Following the announcement in July of the results of a three-year federal investigation that revealed significant civil rights violations by the Newark Police Department, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that the force will be placed under federal oversight.
The joint investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began in 2011, less than a year after a highly critical report from the ACLU questioned whether the Newark Police Department could effectively police itself.
The joint report revealed widespread violations of the Fourth Amendment, noting that up to 75 percent of stop-and-frisk pedestrian stops in Newark were unconstitutional. It also showed a pattern and practice of excessive use of force by police officers, and that African-American residents, who comprise 54 percent of Newark’s population, constitute nearly 80 percent of police stop-and frisks.
State Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-29), whose district includes parts of Newark, recognized that problems with policing go far beyond the boundaries of New Jersey’s largest city.
“Our community extends beyond the borders of the state of New Jersey. What has happened in the Eric Garner case is clearly injustice. The coroner indicated that his death was a homicide,” Spencer, who has served as Newark’s municipal prosecutor, said. “I don’t know if there was really legal logic behind [the decision not to indict], because clearly there was probable cause.”
Two fixtures of Newark civic life explained why they were at the protest, as well as the unique dynamics of their city.
“I’m here for justice for all of the young men that have been murdered in the street,” said Amina Baraka, the mother of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It’s not just that [Eric Garner] couldn’t breathe. We can ‘t breathe. We can’t breathe until our children can breathe.”
“We’ve built up relationships with the community over the years, and we work hard to maintain those relationships,” said Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who helped to direct his officers as the protesters left their starting point at the foot of the statue of Abraham Lincoln positioned in front of the Essex County Courthouse in downtown Newark. “For example, I’ve known Larry Hamm since he was 17 years old. We have each other’s cell phone numbers. We have respect for one another. Demonstrate? Fine. This is the American way.”
As the protest continued peacefully down Market Street on the way to Newark’s federal building, young African-American men in their teens and twenties jumped off the curb and into the street to join the protest.
Already demonstrating were a couple from Teaneck who were not as young: Mary Shoiket, 99, and her husband Henry, 96.
“It’s a question of simple justice,” Mary said. “You only have one life, and you need to live it with dignity. I couldn’t respect myself if I didn’t come out tonight.”