Garner Grand Jury Decision Sparks Protests, Federal Civil Rights Probe

Eric Garner – Photo by: Thomas Altfather Good

A Staten Island grand jury’s decision Wednesday not to indict a white police officer in the death of a 43-year-old unarmed black man sparked a wave of protests across New York City, and also prompted federal authorities to announce a civil rights investigation in the case.

From Eric Garner’s hometown of Staten Island to Union Square, Time Square and other bustling parts of New York City, demonstrators, outraged over the verdict, took to the streets to protest what they believe is an unfair justice system that fails to properly hold police accountable.

“I can’t breathe!” protestors chanted, channeling Garner through the phrase he repeated when an NYPD officer placed the father-of-six in a chokehold July 17 following his arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

The hashtag #ICantBreathe was trending on Twitter, during the protest with many users sharing stills from a YouTube video documenting Garner’s arrest, and the chokehold that eventually led to his death.

At Grand Central Station, protesters organized a mass “lie down,” while other demonstrators took to the streets.

The latest round of protests in New York City comes a little more than a week after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo. declined to charge a white police officer in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. That decision sparked nationwide peaceful protests, as well as riots in and around Ferguson.

Also Wednesday night, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal probe into Garner’s death. Holder noted that since Garner’s death, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the FBI have been monitoring the case, but wanted to wait until after the grand jury came to a decision before officially conducting their own investigation.

“Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation,” Holder said.

“We have all seen the video of Mr. Garner’s arrest,” he added. “His death, of course, was a tragedy. All lives must be valued.  Mr. Garner’s death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.”

Earlier in the day, U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats from New York, called on the Justice Department to investigate.

Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who has been tapped by President Obama to replace Holder, released a statement late Wednesday acknowledging her office’s involvement in the federal investigation, which she promised will be “fair and thorough.”

Lynch, who is awaiting a confirmation hearing before Congress, didn’t comment on the grand jury’s decision.

She said the inquiry will determine whether federal civil rights laws have been violated.


Obama also weighed in on the Staten Island grand jury decision at the Tribal Nationals Conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday night.

The president said Garner’s death, and the subsequent protests, “speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”

Determined protesters had planned to march to Rockefeller Center, the scene of the annual Christmas tree lighting, to apparently interrupt the festivities but their path was obstructed by police, according to reports.

Mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled his appearance at the tree lighting ceremony and instead met with local officials and activists in Staten Island.

Additional protests have been planned in New York City on Thursday.