Wednesday night, demonstrators took to the streets of New York City hours after a grand jury announced its decision to not indict the white officer involved in the death of an African-American man in Staten Island.
In July 2014, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, in an apparent chokehold during an arrest. Garner was being arrested for allegedly selling illegal, untaxed cigarettes in the New York City borough.
Garner subsequently died.
Last night, demonstrators spread across the island of Manhattan to voice their frustration, gathering in Union Square, Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, and the West Side Highway. I arrived in Times Square shortly after 7:30 p.m., and followed the protest north. Here’s what I saw.
In Times Square, a few hundred demonstrators packed tightly together on Broadway, near 45th Street. Journalists and tourists formed rings around them.
They held their arms overhead, chanting “Can’t breathe, don’t shoot,” over and over.
Cell phone footage of Garner’s arrest last August, captured by a bystander, shows Pantaleo with an arm around Garner’s neck while six other officers helped subdue him. Garner is seen crying “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” as he’s rolled onto his stomach on the pavement.
Around 7:55 p.m., demonstrators held an impromptu moment of silence for Garner.
The mood in Times Square was angry, but passive. I didn’t hear anyone call for the destruction of public property or threaten to set cars aflame — although the chant “Shut it down!” swept the area several times. Protesters just a dozen blocks north swarmed Rockefeller Center, with intent to disrupt the tree lighting.
By 9:00 p.m., demonstrators began marching northwest of Times Square to the West Side Highway, where protests got underway earlier that evening.
It seemed to me that the smaller groups at Union Square, Rockefeller Center, and Times Square converged on Twelfth Avenue in the upper 40s. Now a pack, thousands strong, they began their ascent. “Uptown! Uptown!” they shouted.
They wove between cars, sitting idly on the highway.
Some demonstrators waved signs overhead. Many were handwritten on pieces of cardboard, an indication to me that they were made en route to the protest using whatever materials they could find.
Others held their hands overhead. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they chanted.
While most drivers honked their horns, others showed solidarity with the demonstrators. I saw a female driver hold her hands up above the steering wheel, and one man even got out of his parked car to cheer on the demonstrators.
In all this time, the hundreds of police officers on scene seemed surprisingly calm. They tended to huddle at the back of the march, which now stretched a quarter-mile long, I suspect.
At one point, officers wanted to resume traffic on the southbound lane of the West Side Highway and attempted to shepherd demonstrators from the road to the sidewalk.
They weren’t really having it.
That’s when I heard one officer yell, “Off the streets or you will be locked up.”
Demonstrators heeded his warning and leapt onto the median.
I saw two demonstrators taken into NYPD custody — both while males in their mid to late 20s. In the arrest pictured below, I’m unsure what the man was charged with. The officers scurried to escort him away from the crowds.
Still, the threat of being arrested was on everyone’s mind. Tonight’s events followed a wave of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where last week, protests erupted after officer Darren Wilson escaped indictment for the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Sixty-one people in Ferguson were arrested the night the grand jury announced its decision, and now face charges ranging from unlawful assembly and trespassing, to felonies including second degree burglary, arson, unlawful firearm possession, and assault.
In a moment that mirrored images I’d seen on the news the morning after the Ferguson protests, a dozen demonstrators lay down on the highway. There were no cars nearby.
Immediately, three or four activists gathered around them to ask if they knew the hotline number to call in case they were arrested. One young woman took out her phone to look up the number, while bystanders passed out pens so the demonstrators could write the number on their hands.
Occasionally, an officer would come near — without entering the circle — to sort of, check in on things.
“They are peaceful! They are peaceful!” demonstrators said.
Eventually, the demonstrators ahead passed 72nd Street, where the West Side Highway morphs into the Henry Hudson Parkway. It leads to the Bronx and Westchester. The advocates holding the banner at the front of the pack paused, seeing the cop cars with their flashing lights parked at the boundary.
Turning around, they saw the rear turn onto 72nd Street. The mass had noticably decreased in size, but they remained densely packed and noisy. Really noisy. They chanted, “Black lives matter!” and “Our streets!” at the top of their lungs.
Like an unfunny game of “telephone,” we above 72nd Street received word that the protest was being rerouted to Broadway and would continue on to Harlem.
I approached one NYPD officer and asked, “Do you know where they’re headed?” He seemed tired, and stopped to massage one foot.
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “Wherever the wind takes them.”
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