Chants of "no justice, no peace," ripped through the air Wednesday, as hundreds of protesters in Foley Square marked five years since the death of Eric Garner during an arrest on Staten Island.
The demonstration was held just one day after the Department of Justice announced it would not bring civil rights charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is accused of placing Garner in an illegal chokehold that contributed to his death in 2014. The decision left Garner’s family, along with a slew of activists and elected officials, stunned and outraged.
Signs that read "We are Eric Garner" and "#FirePantaleo" peppered the crowd of about 400 people as they gathered in front of a "Justice for Eric Garner" banner, where the 43-year-old’s mother, Gwen Carr, spoke of a wound that will not heal.
"Five years later we are still here. … I’m still feeling that same pain," Carr told the crowd.
The protesters boiled with anger in the sweltering heat, chanting and cheering as speakers demanded justice.
"We have to find justice for Eric and we won’t stop until we get it," Garner’s cousin Dolores Duke said.
With the Justice Department’s case closed, the only form of recourse left for the Garner family is the outcome of an NYPD disciplinary trial. The proceedings concluded in June, but a decision on whether Pantaleo violated departmental rules during the arrest has not yet been announced. If he’s found guilty, he could face a range of sanctions, including firing.
Garner’s family is demanding Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill fire Pantaleo now, rather than waiting for the outcome of the departmental trial.
"Fire those cops!" a frustrated Carr yelled to the crowd in Foley Square.
Protester James White, 71, said he believes de Blasio is protecting Pantaleo because he doesn’t want to challenge the NYPD.
"It’s a travesty, what the city has done," White, of West Harlem, added as he joined the crowd in a march around City Hall and over to NYPD headquarters.
The protesters then drew chalk outlines of their bodies to represent the lives lost to police brutality. In all, about 200 chalk outlines were left on the plaza.
Over on Staten Island, a separate group of about 100 protesters marched from the St. George Ferry Terminal to the spot on Bay Street where Garner uttered his last words, "I can’t breathe," stopping outside the 120th Precinct along the way to call on the NYPD to fire Pantaleo.
“They push back, we push harder, we’re doing this for Eric Garner,” shouted protesters emerging from the terminal before the march.
Sami Dise, 36, said the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute “smacked a lot of people in the face."
“An officer was clearly shown on tape choking a man and unlike some of the other families who have experienced the loss of a loved one there has been no sense of justice or accountability in this case,” said Dise, a Black Lives Matter member from the Bronx. “We know eventually we will win but it’s difficult to see time and time again, no accountability when a black or brown person is killed unnecessarily.”
Video of Garner’s death helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement, which has spent the last five years elevating the national discourse on police use of force. His dying words of "I can’t breathe," have become a rallying cry for police reform activists.
Facing scrutiny over the long-delayed NYPD trial, de Blasio tried to shift the blame back to the Department of Justice on Wednesday.
"The mistake here was believing that the Justice Department was going to do its job, and they didn’t," the mayor said at an unrelated morning news conference. “It’s been five years, there were many points along the way were it seemed like the Justice Department was poised to make a decision — up or down, just a decision — and they consistently told the NYPD not to proceed, until recently, with the administrative action.”
De Blasio did not attend either of the demonstrations, but said earlier in the day that his administration and the NYPD respect "everyone’s right to speak."
"We’ve always done that, and the NYPD does an extraordinary job, and works with protesters very consistently," he said. "And, there is no place in this country that does a better job of protecting people’s democratic rights while also keeping the peace and keeping order."