MANHATTAN (CN) - On the second night of protests following a grand jury's refusal to indict the police officer whose chokehold killed unarmed Staten Island resident Eric Garner, one mother stood next to her 4-year-old daughter among thousands of people at Foley Square with a sign that said: "NYPD Will U Explain This To My Child."
Dozens of parents were asking similar questions as massive protests drew everyone from toddlers to the elderly.
In later evening hours, after most of the families with young children left, more than 200 people were arrested where protesters had ground traffic to a halt throughout the city and an officer pulled out pepper spray near a busy intersection.
Long before these incidents, Queens resident Michelle Holland had been holding her question to the NYPD near the center of the plaza surrounded by more than a half dozen state and federal courts in downtown Manhattan.
"Honestly, we told her that there are some bad cops that should be fired, but haven't, and there should be consequences," she said. "Which is part of the reason why we're here. Because it's not fair, and nobody is allowed to kill."
She was at the square around the same time organizers slated speeches by the mothers of Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham, two black men who died in police shootings.
The massive crowd's chants combined with the constant drone of police helicopters overhead drowned out the grieving mothers' speeches in most of the square.
Holland's preschool-aged daughter got caught up in one of the crowd's most popular chants that night, although she could not pronounce the letter "r" through her adorable childhood lilt. (Listen here!)
"No justice, no peace!
"No wacist police," she yelled.
The daughter attends the East Village's Neighborhood School, known for its progressive ideals, even though the family lives a borough away.
"When she grows up, I don't want to be ashamed when she asks, 'What did you do?' 'What did we do?'" said Holland, a member of the school's advocacy committee. "And I want her to know that we just don't get involved and care about things that only affect us. We have to care about justice for everyone, and that includes her classmates."
Ann and Benjamin Schaeffer, two white parents of an adopted black 4-year old, said they had not yet explained what happened to Garner to their child.
"That's a little too advanced of a topic," said Anne Schaeffer, a family lawyer. "It's really tricky when he sees cops, and he asks, 'Oh, you carry a gun. Is that for shooting bad guys?' And I'm biting my tongue not to say something snarky.
"We've actually been thinking about how to have the conversation with him about the fact that every time he sees somebody being brought into our precinct, they're brown," Ann continued. "And all the people outside the criminal building are brown. And he's brown, and how to make sense of that. We haven't had the talk yet. We're looking for guidance with friends, with friends who are black and friends with kids, because it's hard."
The 4-year-old, who sat on the shoulders of his father, is "just starting to understand the concept of race," she added.
Benjamin chimed in that they are also struggling with the question: "Should he think that police are dangerous, or his friend?"
Ann called this problem "the hardest part." "I want him to think that police protect us, but I really can't say it with a straight face right now," she said.
Renate Lunn, the mother of a 3-year-old toddler, kept the explanation simple.
"Someone did something bad, and they didn't get punished for it," she said. "And that makes me angry. But I haven't been able to explain it more than that."
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in the fatal chokehold, still faces a federal investigation.
Bronx community organizer Sandra Lobo was more blunt about the topic with her 10-year-old daughter.
"We actually had a conversation about it last night at bedtime, and we talked about how the system is unjust," she said. "And it's really not about any individual police officer, but about how we need to dismantle the actual system, the justice system, the police system."
She said that she did not have this bedtime talk with her 5-year-old son, who wore a tiger-print hat with whiskers next to her.
For most of the parents, the protests seemed to end as soon as the massive crowds spilled onto the streets, snarling up traffic throughout the city. Many drivers stuck in the evening-hour commutes appeared to support the protests, high-fiving people on Broadway, Canal Street, the West Side Highway and other roads.
Others lit cigarettes and waited for the procession to pass.
A few drivers blared their horns on beat to the syllables of the chants like, "Whose streets? Our streets!"
At the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, rows of police in riot gear stood behind a row of metal barricades to block the demonstration from passing through the front entrance. The rattling of those barriers drew a couple of arrests here, as police were seen wrestling with protesters on the ground.
The mostly peaceful protest took an ugly turn a little after 10 p.m. at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, where an officer used pepper spray that doused the eyes of at least four people.
A reporter felt a splash on his face and hands, but nowhere near his eyes.
The incident did little enhance demonstrators' faith in a promise by New York City's recently elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, who promised a new era of improved relationships with police and the communities they serve.
As medical volunteers soothed pepper-sprayed eyes with milk, a chant broke out: "De Blasio's New York!"
On Friday morning, an NYPD spokesman denied being aware of the photographed use of pepper spray, but he confirmed more than 200 arrests, mostly for disorderly conduct.
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