Newsday
December 4, 2014


Arrests on Brooklyn Bridge as protesters fan out across city in reaction to grand jury decision not to indict officer in Eric Garner death

By ELLEN YAN, JOHN ASBURY AND DARRAN SIMON  ellen.yan@newsday.com,john.asbury@newsday.com,darran.simon@newsday.com

Protests over the Eric Garner grand jury decision mushroomed early Thursday with hundreds roving around Manhattan's major landmarks.

They lay prone and blocked traffic on major roadways, bridges and a tunnel, pushed against police barricades at Rockefeller Center, and held their hands up in the "don't shoot" pose at Times Square, where they also conducted a sit-in.

In a show of might, they shut down Columbus Circle and the West Side Highway, and while at Grand Central Terminal, protesters got up from the floor and repeated "I can't breathe," Garner's last words, as they left.

Early Thursday, more than 1,000 marchers crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, where, halfway across, at least 150 people sat on the roadway as police warned of arrests if they didn't move on. The crowd relented, taunting the officers as they stepped backward -- facing the police, who pulled up the rear. A handful of protesters were arrested during the bridge crossing, including one man on the Brooklyn side of the East River.

In Brooklyn, protesters chanted, "Hands up, don't shoot!"

As the march broke up and protesters dissipated about 1:15 a.m., police declined to allow people to return to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather, protesters had to take cabs or other forms of public transportation.

Earlier, hundreds moved to Times Square, with dozens of police ahead of them and to the rear, stopping traffic. About 100 sat down on the roadway at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street.

Dyquan Thompson, 30, of Newark, who led the protest through Times Square to Herald Square, waved a flag with a peace symbol that said "justice" and "respect." He said he hoped the protests would lead to change and that the new body cameras that some NYPD officers are carrying would be the first step.

"It needs to be fair and there needs to be peace. There's a major lack of communication and education on both sides," he said. "Maybe the cameras will help see the story from both sides. We need a neutral ground."

The NYPD was out in force throughout Manhattan, keeping a wary eye on largely peaceful demonstrations. Garner's family and public officials had urged calm after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Garner, 43, died July 17 after Pantaleo held him in an apparent chokehold during a confrontation with cops who were trying to arrest him as he allegedly sold untaxed cigarettes.

At one point late in the night, masses of young, old, black and white surged down the driving lanes of the West Side Highway in both directions before a 400-strong crowd covered the roadway with their bodies. For 10 minutes, they chanted "No peace, no justice" or "Whose street? Our street!" or shouted vulgarities at the police officers, positioned on one side of the highway.

"I'm tired of them killing black men, women and children and getting away with it," said Laurine Derose, 23, of Queens as she marched off the West Side Highway to Times Square. "Our lives matter, too."

As officers on motorcycles, in cars and on foot kept pace, marchers converged on Rockefeller Center's annual tree-lighting ceremony and pushed against police barricades, demanding they be open.

The tree ceremony went on and ended without much disruption, but dozens of protesters remained on nearby West 49th, shouting at rows of helmeted officers arrayed by the barricades.

"They're getting away with murder, sir," yelled Andrew Wilkins, 33, of Queens. "Somebody doesn't have a father this Christmas."

Just after 10 p.m., NYPD Commissioner William Bratton told CNN there had been about 30 arrests.

It was a day of fast-paced developments in the Garner case. Pantaleo issued a statement of condolence to the family, but it was rejected by them hours later. The Rev. Al Sharpton announced a march on Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13 to protest the recent series of fatal encounters between blacks and police, while the district attorney in the Garner case asked the court for permission to release evidence presented to the grand jury.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said a federal civil rights investigation would be opened in the case.Holder said federal prosecutors "will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation."

The probe will be conducted by a team that includes Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who has been nominated to succeed Holder as attorney general, and whose office handles matters from Staten Island, as well as Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

"Now we've all seen the video from Mr. Garner's arrest. His death of course was a tragedy. All lives must be valued. All lives," Holder said.

Those who were stunned, angry and mystified by the grand jury's action started taking to the streets almost immediately, from the Staten Island sidewalk where Garner kept saying "I can't breathe" to Times Square, where people put their hands against their throats to mimic being choked.

"I don't know what to feel or think because we continue to keep getting the same message," Douglas Davis, who teaches advertising at CUNY and City College, said at the Rockefeller Center protest. "That message is we're a nation of laws and that those laws are selectively applied."

Also by the tree lighting ceremony, Tuqan Wright, 23, of Harlem said he was representing those without justice: "I'm here for Eric Garner, I'm here for Trayvon Martin, I'm here for Michael Brown, and I'm here for everybody else that has been taken advantage of and being devalued as human beings. I am here for myself because I am a young black man."

De Blasio, Garner's family and other public officials sought to quell any mayhem by demonstrators, from promises of change to hope of a federal investigation.

Through the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Pantaleo, 29, issued a statement of support for Garner and his family, one that was rejected by his widow, Esaw Garner.

"This is now a national moment of grief and pain," de Blasio said in a night news conference on Staten Island. "We are dealing with centuries of racism that brought us to this place."

On MSNBC's "Politics Nation," Esaw Garner told the host, the Rev. Al Sharpton, that she got some comfort from speaking to Holder on Wednesday.

"We still have hope and we still have a fight to fight to get this justice for my husband. . . . He will not die in vain."

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said the grand jurors' decision "tore me up."

"What were they looking at?" she said.

Sharpton called for the march on Washington on Dec. 13 to demand justice for several recent fatal encounters between blacks and the NYPD.

It is a "national march to deal with a national crisis," said Sharpton in Harlem, flanked by Garner's widow and mother. "How many people have to die until people understand this is not an illusion. It's reality that America has to come to terms with . . . We are not advocating violence. We are asking that police violence stop."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the circumstances of Garner's death "nothing short of tragic," but while some New Yorkers may disagree with the grand jury's decision, "it is important that we respect the legal process and rule of law."

In an interview with CNN, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he agreed with the grand jury's decision and he believes Garner's race was not a factor in the incident.

"I feel strongly that the police officer should not have been indicted," King said.

Speaking during a visit to American Indians, Obama said he was "committed" to "equal under the law" treatment. "This is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or Native American problem," Obama said.

In announcing the grand jury's decision, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. acknowledged "the heartache" of Garner's loved ones "who have consistently carried themselves with grace during the past four months."

Donovan said the Staten Island investigation focused on hearing from civilian eyewitnesses -- 22 were found; those who provided medical treatment at the scene and the hospital; and experts in forensic pathology, policies, procedures, and training of police officers.

In an effort to shed light on the decision, Donovan said he filed Wednesday for a court order allowing him to release certain information used in connection with the grand jury investigation, usually a secret process.

After learning of the decision, Pantaleo said: "I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can't protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers, and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss."

The Garner family filed a $75 million notice of claim with the city in October, the first step in a lawsuit.

"His apology to me now means absolutely nothing," Esaw Garner said on "Politics Nation." "I have to be alone in raising the rest of my children and grandchildren. . . . He still goes home to his family."

Ben Carr, Garner's stepfather, said the decision is "just like a knife stabbing my heart."

The New York Civil Liberties Union described the decision as a failure that demonstrates the need for "wholesale reform" of the NYPD. "How will the NYPD hold the officers involved accountable for his death?" executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "And what will Commissioner Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind?"

PBA president Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement that he was pleased with the grand jury's decision in a case where there are "no winners."

"There was a loss of life that both a family and a police officer will always have to live with," Lynch said. "It is clear that the officer's intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the take down technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused."

Pantaleo now faces the prospect of command discipline and an Internal Affairs Bureau probe, police officials said. Police investigators will be closely looking at whether Pantaleo used excessive force, including a chokehold that is against NYPD protocol, said one law enforcement official.

A bystander's video of the altercation showed Garner prone on the ground repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" as officers restrained him, sometimes pressing his head onto the sidewalk. The images sparked outrage and prompted NYPD Commissioner William Bratton to announce that all officers would undergo special training on handling physical confrontations.

On Aug. 1, the city medical examiner ruled the death as a homicide and said Garner died as a result of compression of the neck by a chokehold, as well as compression of his chest while he was being restrained by police. Officials said that Garner's bronchial asthma condition, his obesity and high blood pressure contributed to his death.

With Nicole Fuller, Ivan Pereira, Alison Fox, Dan Rivoli, Karina Cuevas, Tom Brune, Anthony M. DeStefano, Candice Ruud