On Staten Island, Thousands Protest Police Tactics
By J. DAVID GOODMANAUG. 23, 2014
They came by ferry from Manhattan, in caravans from Brooklyn and New Jersey or on foot from the gritty neighborhood in northeast Staten Island where an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, died last month after an encounter with the police.
Thousands converged on Saturday on the site of the fatal encounter, the start of a protest march linking Mr. Garner’s killing to deadly police actions past and present, from New York City to Ferguson, Mo., where a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager two weeks ago.
Signs and slogans touched on details of each death as well as broad policies that protesters argued encouraged bad behavior by officers.
“ ‘Broken Windows’ Kills,” a sign read, a reference to the aggressive policing of minor offenses like selling untaxed cigarettes, the crime Mr. Garner had been accused of committing.
Chants of “I can’t breathe” — Mr. Garner’s final words as he struggled with officers — mixed with those borrowed from Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
For days, march organizers and Mayor Bill de Blasio stressed that the demonstration on Staten Island would not devolve into the sort of violent confrontation with police officers that has shaken the protests over the death of the Ferguson teenager, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9. By 2:30 p.m., the marching had ended and in terms of arrests, the police said, all had been quiet.
Indeed, for both police officials and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led the march, the demonstration served as a kind of protest-by-example for how to respond forcefully but peacefully amid accusations of police misconduct.
“We are not here to cause riots; we are here because violence was caused,” Mr. Sharpton said at a rally after the march, adding, “an illegal chokehold is violence.” But, he said, “we are not against the police.”
Mr. Garner died soon after the encounter with the police on July 17. Video of the episode showed an officer, Daniel Pantaleo, gripping Mr. Garner’s neck to bring him down as other officers piled on to restrain him. The city medical examiner ruled that the death of Mr. Garner, who was 43 and more than 300 pounds, was caused by the chokehold and a compression of the chest.
“We will not stop until somebody goes to jail,” David A. Paterson, the former governor, told the crowd on Saturday.
The Staten Island district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., has said he would impanel a special grand jury, set to begin its investigation next month, that could bring criminal charges against Officer Pantaleo or others. Federal authorities have said they are monitoring the case but have not begun their own investigation.
In long meetings in advance of the protest, the Police Department planned for crowds that could reach 15,000 or more, officials said, though organizers said they expected between 3,000 to 5,000. The actual total on Saturday appeared to be within the organizers’ estimate. The police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said the department worked closely with Mr. Sharpton and other organizers to ensure the march went smoothly.
Mr. de Blasio, who did not attend the march, said on Saturday that “after any incident like this, it’s very important that people express their concerns.” But he also defended the “broken windows” approach to policing, which is associated with Mr. Bratton and has come under intensifying criticism after Mr. Garner’s death. “It’s about addressing problems at the grass roots consistently and energetically, and we’ll continue to do that,” Mr. de Blasio said.
During the demonstration, community affairs officers in royal blue shirts and baseball hats offered a stark contrast to the militarized posture of police officers in the aftermath of Mr. Brown’s death. Uniformed patrol officers had a more modest presence, at the ferry terminal and along the protest route.
“Be police, be professional, take control,” a captain told a half-dozen huddled officers on a street corner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as protesters boarded the buses that would take them to Staten Island. “They’re looking to show the world that New York City knows how to protest,” the captain said.
A few hundred people held a vigil on Staten Island on Thursday night for police officers killed in the line of duty. They waved American flags, in a sort of protest of the protest.
“It’s ridiculous; there’s no reason for a march,” said Thomas Kosnik, 44, a retired police detective. “Police should be given the benefit of the doubt.”
At the rally, the demonstrators stressed their protest was not against the Police Department in general. Signs handed out by Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union read: “Support N.Y.P.D. Stop Police Brutality.”
Among the marchers were members of labor unions that threw support behind the protests and elected officials, including the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Many invoked the names of black New Yorkers killed by police bullets in recent years: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham.
Lyndell Jones, 46, an administrative assistant from the Bronx, remembered being unable to sleep for a week after watching the video of Mr. Garner’s death, recorded by a bystander. “My boyfriend is big like Eric Garner — I thought of him,” she said.
Several of Mr. Garner’s relatives marched together in matching T-shirts bearing his name and the words he spoke just before his arrest: “It stops today.”
“They did wrong,” his wife, Esaw Garner, told the crowd at the culmination of the march. “They need to pay for doing wrong.”