Organizers said at least 3,000 people joined a march today on New York City’s Staten Island to denounce the use of lethal force by police in arresting a black man last month -- a protest that gained intensity after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed teenager sparked days of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
The demonstration, organized by civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, called for an investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner, 43, a father of six. A video showed officers applying what New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said appeared to be an illegal chokehold while arresting Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. The city Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide.
The march began at the commercial intersection where Garner’s fatal encounter with police occurred, about a quarter mile from the Staten Island ferry terminal, and ended in front of the officers’ precinct headquarters where demonstrators demanded criminal charges for those involved. The marchers filled the street for three blocks.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” they chanted, in a reference to the Ferguson incident. They also shouted, “Stop! I can’t breathe!” -- Garner’s last words, as captured on a witness’s phone camera.
The protest gained wider interest after the issue of police abuse attracted national attention with the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed 18-year-old black man, which sparked more than a week of civil unrest in Ferguson.
So far, New York has avoided violent confrontations after Garner’s death, unlike Ferguson, where Missouri Governor Jay Nixon first dispatched the Highway Patrol and later the National Guard to quell clashes between heavily armed police and demonstrators hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Speaking to the Staten Island marchers, Sharpton said, “We are not here to tear down, we’re here to build up. We are not against police, but those who break the law and must be held accountable.”
Turning toward Garner’s wife and children, who joined Sharpton at the rally, Sharpton told the crowd, “We are here for them. They will not cry alone.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she traveled to the Staten Island march from Washington “because it’s important for white people to show we are allies in this moment to change attitudes so that police act with the same respect toward black men that they show toward white women.”
Griffin Johnson, 65, associate minister of the Mt. Zion AME Church in east Harlem, who arrived at the march by ferry, said she attended because “it really bothered me to see police pressing Mr. Garner’s face to the pavement.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, 53, the first Democratic mayor of the most populous U.S. city in 20 years, postponed a planned family vacation by a day to confer with community leaders when Garner died in police custody. He promised new training in police tactics for the department’s 35,000 officers. A grand jury will hear evidence next month, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said.
“Everyone shares the goal of a peaceful protest, and that’s what you will see,” de Blasio said after an Aug. 20 meeting with religious and civil rights leaders, including Sharpton and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, on ways to foster better relations between police and minority communities. De Blasio isn’t scheduled to attend today’s march.
In Missouri, unrest peaked on the night of Aug. 17 when police, backed by armored vehicles, leveled rifles at demonstrators and fired tear gas at about 200 protesters who refused to obey a midnight curfew set by Nixon.
Ferguson has remained relatively calm since Aug. 20, when Attorney General Eric Holder visited and met with FBI agents who are investigating the shooting.
The Missouri confrontations have fueled questions about whether local police are overequipped with military gear and undertrained to deal with civil unrest. The conflict exposed a gap between a community that is 67 percent black and a police force of 53 with three black officers.
The two incidents combined to create an opportunity to address these questions, Sharpton said after the interfaith meeting at which he stood beside Dolan and de Blasio, joined by Christian pastors, rabbis and an Islamic imam.
“It’s a defining moment,” Sharpton said. “We must show the world that we are mature enough to allow citizenry to question those in authority, while showing respect at the same time.”
For Sharpton, 59, the role of peacemaker working with the city’s political and religious leadership is a contrast from his activist beginnings more than 40 years ago, when he earned a reputation for racial polarization and confrontations with authority.
In 1978, then-Mayor Edward Koch had Sharpton arrested when he started a sit-in demonstration in City Hall over demands for more spending on anti-poverty programs. The two reconciled some of their differences and resumed speaking and working with each other about 30 years later. Rudolph Giuliani, who ran City Hall from 1993 to 2001, refused to meet with Sharpton altogether.
In 1987, he took up the cause of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl later found to have fabricated charges that she had been raped by several white men, including police officers. A jury later found Sharpton and two associates had slandered a former prosecutor whom Brawley had also falsely accused of being part of the rape that never happened. Sharpton has never apologized for his role in the incident.
In 1990, Sharpton led boycotts of Korean grocery stores in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and in 1991, when Brooklyn’s Crown Heights erupted in riots after a Jewish driver accidentally ran over a 7-year-old black boy, Sharpton decried the presence of Jewish emergency medical technicians in the neighborhood, calling it “an apartheid ambulance service.”
When former Mayor Michael Bloomberg first considered his candidacy in 2000, Sharpton was an adviser and occasional lunch companion, and the two described their relationship as mutually respectful throughout the 12 years Bloomberg held the office, concluding in 2013. The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Now Sharpton is the host of a daily talk show on cable television’s MSNBC, and has been described by CBS’s “60 Minutes” and Politico, a Web-based news site, as one of President Barack Obama’s most frequent advisers on race issues.
A fiery orator who spent some of his youth as a protege to rhythm and blues icon James Brown, Sharpton intends to travel to Ferguson to deliver a eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral on Aug. 25 at the invitation of the teenager’s family.
Sharpton already has visited Ferguson and helped organize protests there, demanding an investigation after Brown’s grandfather asked for help hours after the shooting.
“When I flew back the other day, I thought about how different it was -- that we’re going to sit in the cardinal’s residence -- than what I saw in the streets of Ferguson,” Sharpton said after emerging from the interfaith clergy meeting this week.
His role at the march, he said, would be to prevent emotions from getting out of control, and he vowed the march would be peaceful, as it turned out to be.
“There were no incidents,” said Edward Delatorre, Staten Island police commander. “Nobody got hurt. Nobody got arrested.”