Public officials called for calm and peaceful demonstrations after a grand jury in Staten Island on Wednesday declined to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner. The unarmed black New Yorker’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — were caught on video and became a rallying cry for protesters demanding police reforms.
The decision in New York not to charge the officer comes about a week after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. Both cases became symbols of what protesters called a tendency by white officers to overreact when confronting African-Americans.
“This is a deeply emotional day — for the Garner family, and all New Yorkers,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want.
“New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way.”
Protesters gathered in Times Square and converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with signs reading, “Black lives matter” and “Fellow white people, wake up.” And in the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up — don’t choke!”
In Kansas City, about 25 people gathered peacefully Wednesday night at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard in protest. Some carried signs that said, “Justice,” and, “Black lives matter.”
By Wednesday evening, the Justice Department announced it would open a federal civil rights inquiry into Garner’s death.
Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, stopped breathing after Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, put him in what appeared to be an illegal chokehold while trying to subdue him. The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide resulting from compression of his neck and chest, but the grand jury did not find reasonable cause to charge Pantaleo with a crime.
Pantaleo issued a brief statement through the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that said, in part, “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.”
The union president, Patrick J. Lynch, said he was “pleased with the grand jury’s decision,” but he added: “There are no winners here today.”
The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the lack of an indictment.
“The failure of the Staten Island grand jury to file an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: How will the NYPD hold the officers accountable for his death? And what will Commissioner (William) Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind?” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU. “Unless the Police Department aggressively deals with its culture of impunity and trains officers that they must simultaneously protect both safety and individual rights, officers will continue to believe that they can act without consequence.”
The 23-member grand jury began meeting Sept. 29 and concluded Wednesday, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said in a prepared statement.
Donovan said he was prohibited by law from discussing the grand jury’s deliberations but said he has applied for a court order to release some information on the investigation.
Unlike the protests in Ferguson, which erupted after the Aug. 9 killing of Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson, the New York rallies that followed Garner’s death did not turn violent. But marches in both cities reflected distrust of the police among many blacks, and the demands were the same: prosecution of the officers involved in the deaths.
The Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, who said he shot Brown in self-defense. Pantaleo had no such defense, and his confrontation with Garner, and Garner’s struggle as he died, were captured on video by an onlooker.
The video, which went viral, showed Garner becoming visibly edgy as several officers surrounded him on the Staten Island sidewalk where he was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally.
In the video, Garner accuses police of harassing him and tells them: “I’m tired of it. It stops today.”
“I’m minding my business,” Garner says as officers move closer. “Please just leave me alone.”
As Garner says “Don’t touch me,” Pantaleo grabs him around his neck from behind. Several other officers join in restraining Garner as he falls to the ground. “I can’t breathe,” Garner can be heard saying at least seven times as the officers hold him down and as Pantaleo pushes his head into the sidewalk.
Pantaleo was placed on modified leave and stripped of his gun and badge after Garner’s death. His partner, Justin D’Amico, was assigned to desk duty.
New York’s police commissioner, William Bratton, said Garner’s death showed the need for better training of officers, especially in use-of-force tactics.
The Kansas City Star and the Associated Press contributed to this article.