Thousands of activists—a number of them affiliated with liberal healthcare workers union 1199 SEIU—swarmed into Midtown tonight to protest a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.
The demonstrations began in Union Square, Times Square and Grand Central Station, and were small at first, but soon swelled into crowds comparable to those who last week protested the decision of a Ferguson, Mo. grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Brown, like Garner, was black —and Mr. Wilson, like Mr. Pantaleo, is white; the deaths have stoked tensions nationwide between police and communities of color.
The activists chanted “I can’t breathe”—Garner’s last words—as well as “hands up, don’t shoot,” a rallying cry derived from disputed reports that Brown had his arms in the air when Mr. Wilson opened fire. They also shouted “black lives matter” a common protest slogan since the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of Sanford, Fla. neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012 and a refrain Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed in remarks tonight.
Aside from scores of handmade signs, many carried placards emblazoned with the logo 1199 SEIU and the phrase “Respect Human Rights.”
“It is an 1199 issue. Because 1199 is a social justice movement. We don’t just organize workers, we help out communities to move ahead, that’s our mission, that’s what we do, that’s what we’re proud of,” said union organizer Florence Johnson, who led a number of chants in Times Square
The protesters’ stated goal was to interrupt the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting, which the NYPD had pre-emptively barricaded off. Chanting “no justice, no tree,” the demonstrators attempted to outpace and outmaneuver police, zig-zagging up, down and across town trying to get closer to the iconic arbor.
On several occasions, the marchers spilled into the street and obstructed traffic, including an FDNY ambulance on Madison Avenue, in scenes reminiscent from those a week ago.
The NYPD was the target of much of the vitriol, as the phrase “no justice, no peace, no racist police” made its way down the picket line.
Not everyone wanted justice for Garner–one older white man yelled, “We don’t care, go away” after this display.
A black man who identified himself only as Human Being held a sign telling his unborn son that “People will see the color of your skin before the content of your character.”
“This is not about black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian,” Human Being told the Observer. “This is about justice. This is about the police asking my white friend ‘What you doing with that nigger?'”
Human Being was then silenced by a police officer, who told him, “You can protest all day, just do me a favor and get down.”
Others decided to protest in large groups. Tatiana Kidd, who was marching with a group holding signs saying “Ferguson is everywhere,” said that togetherness is best at trying times for the black community.
“It gives everyone a sense of unity,” Ms. Kidd said as she and her comrades marched toward midtown. “Gathering in numbers is helpful.”