MANHATTAN (CN) – Chafing at the barricades keeping them a block from the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday, protesters chanted the final words of a man whose killer dodged an indictment. “I can’t breathe,” they said.
Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, repeated those words at least nine times with his face pressed against a sidewalk close to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal as police piled onto him to arrest him for allegedly trying to sell illegal cigarettes.
Video footage of the July 17, 2014, incident shows Garner losing consciousness after white officer Daniel Pantaleo places him in a chokehold.
Although medical examiners ruled the case a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined to charge even negligence against Pantaleo on Wednesday afternoon.
Within hours, protesters met at New York City’s Union Square before heading up Sixth Avenue, where they hit a police barricade near 47th Street. Several people were arrested in the streets, as others squeezed through barricades on separate corners.
The crowd migrated then two blocks north, where they confronted metallic and human barriers separating them from the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
Lined rows of police in riot gear defended metal barricades separating them from protesters who chanted: “Fuck your tree!”
Those words could not be heard at the splashy ceremony a little more than a block away, where major networks showed Mariah Carey belting holiday tunes without interruption.
The Twitter hashtag that sprang up, #NoJusticeNoTree, did not achieve its goal, but waves of discontent with the grand jury’s decision washed elsewhere over the city.
The Rockefeller Center demonstration eventually veered north, past Radio City Music Hall and the Nutcracker statues that guard the UBS Building, and then west toward Times Square.
Just after the NBC building’s ticker scrolled the news of the no-indictment, some demonstrators played dead on the streets as others traced their splayed bodies with chalk to simulate a crime scene.
Similar large-scale protests have snaked through New York for more than a week in the wake of the decision by a St. Louis grand jury not to indict another white officer, Darren Wilson, who fired several shots that killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
Legal observers have called the grand jury investigations for both Wilson and Pantaleo atypical, in that both officers testified in their own defense in proceedings that lasted for months and involved jurors inspecting both incriminating and exculpatory evidence.
In most grand juries, prosecutors present only evidence that supports the charges that recommended for trial, and targets of the probes usually avoid testifying because their lawyers are not allowed to attend the secret proceedings.
Protestors linked the cases in multiple chants.
“Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Every city, Shut it down!” they shouted.
Several contingents of protesters reportedly brought traffic to a halt on the West Side Highway and a lane of the Lincoln Tunnel, and others marched through Harlem and Staten Island.
Another near-rhyme heard that night went, “Indict. Convict. Send the killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, primed to be the nation’s next attorney general, announced that a federal probe will investigate Pantaleo for civil-rights violations.
“The investigation will be fair and thorough, and it will be conducted as expeditiously as possible,” she said.
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