A WEEKEND of demonstrations took place around New York City to mark the one-year anniversary of the July 17 police murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, a death seen by millions of people thanks to the cell phone video taken by Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta.
Outrageously, Orta is the only person present the day of Garner’s murder who has seen jail time. Officer Daniel Pantaleo escaped any charges when a grand jury decided not to indict him last December–a decision that, along with a similar one for Mike Brown’s killer in Ferguson only a few days earlier–sparked weeks of tumultuous national protests and the flowering of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A week before the anniversary, New York City officials announced a $5.9 million settlement with Eric Garner’s family–but the family made it clear it isn’t about to declare victory. “The victory will come when we get justice,” said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. “Justice,” added Garner’s daughter Emerald Snipes, “is when somebody is held accountable for what they do.”
It was in that spirit that over a thousand people took part in protests over the weekend–the largest two being a Friday night march of young militants and a Saturday afternoon rally featuring established civil rights and other organizations.
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THE FRIDAY night march, called by Millions March NYC, began with a rally in Columbus Circle that drew around 400 people. Speakers represented different groups organizing against police brutality, as well as family members of victims of police terror–including Akeem Browder, whose brother Kalief Browder recently committed suicide after being held without charges for three years in the city’s notorious Riker’s Island prison.
The injustice of Garner’s NYPD killers getting off weighed heavily on the minds of many protesters. “I live in Staten Island,” aid Nick Milton. “I see his mural every day and we can’t forget it. We can’t forget it.”
James Lane, a Green Party activist who ran for Congress against the Republican Dan Donovan, the district attorney who failed to indict Pantaleo, said:
All lives will only truly matter when Black lives matter. Here you have a district attorney who failed to get an indictment when the whole world saw the video of Daniel Pantaleo choking this man when he said that I can’t breathe 11 times. And with all that evidence, there’s no indictment. On top of that, he feels that he’s entitled to a promotion to run for Congress to represent the Garner family.
Many marchers were thinking not just about Garner, but about the many others who have been murdered by police in the year since Garner was choked for the world to see. “We must recognize the significance of [Garner’s] death,” one protester said, “and that these kinds of injustices towards members of the Black community occur systemically and regularly.”
An early childhood educator named Veronica came to the protest carrying a sign for Sandra Bland, the young Black woman from Chicago who was found dead in a Texas jail cell last week in what local police are dubiously claiming was a suicide.
“It continues to happen every day,” Veronica said. “One year [after Garner’s death], how many have been killed? I think everybody needs to realize that they’re part of the movement. If you don’t come to the protests and you’re teaching, that’s part of your activism. If you’re talking to a friend, that’s part of your activism.”
After an hour of speeches, the crowd marched from Columbus Circle through the shopping districts of midtown Manhattan and through Times Square. As has been the case since Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD chief Bill Bratton decided to start cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests last December, the police were aggressive, making arrests at the beginning of the march for no apparent reason.
Eventually, after about two hours of marching, about 20 demonstrators occupied an intersection near Penn Station in an act of civil disobedience, and were arrested.
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THE FOLLOWING day around 500 people came to a rally featuring dozens of speakers on a stage with a major sound system, organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
The crowd was primarily made up of officials and workers in the health care workers union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, along with members of Make the Road NY, Picture the Homeless, Cop Watch and other organizations.
The highlights of the rally were provided by the many family members of victims of racist violence, who organizers had gathered for the occasion, including: Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr and widow Esau Garner; Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton; Mike Brown’s mother Leslie McSpadden, Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson; and Ramarley Graham’s mother Constance Malcolm.
Given this incredible lineup of speakers–alongside elected officials and representatives from sponsoring organizations– the turnout for rally has to be a considered a disappointment.
The fact that it was almost the same size as the grassroots march of young militants the night before is an indication both that the movement is currently in a lull and that the challenges young activists in Ferguson and elsewhere have made to Sharpton’s leadership have taken their toll on his credibility.
At the same time, it was clear that many members of the crowd, which included many working class African Americans in their 40s and 50s, had similar levels of anger and determination as the young protesters risking arrest the night before.
“When innocent lives are taken in such brutal fashion,” said Kim, who joined National Action Network last year after she experienced racist policing firsthand, “where is our humanity that we don’t see anything wrong with that? Why do we have a judicial system and a legal system that can ignore some injustice and fully recognize other injustice?”
One parent from Harlem referred to the Garner family settlement, saying: “Five million dollars is money, not justice. Justice will be when they get those cops off the streets…Pantaleo is still getting a paycheck.”
Damon, a nursing home worker and member of 1199SEIU, talked about the importance of the rallies and marches, which he’s been to many times before. “I think the most important thing is bringing people together to protest,” he said. “It’s Saturday, and nobody else is around here today, but maybe this gets more union people to think about these issues as labor issues, too. And to show respect for Eric Garner.”
Another SEIU member, a Latina woman from Long Island, added. “We don’t need more police. The police don’t make our communities feel safer. That money should go to health care, education and housing for our communities.”
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