The news Wednesday afternoon that a New York City police officer won’t be indicted for the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold, comes as a second painful blow for those fighting police brutality, as well as for many in the black community who feel targeted by law enforcement.
Three days before Thanksgiving, news broke that Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t face charges in the August death of Michael Brown. Both Garner and Brown were black and unarmed. Both Wilson and NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was investigated in Garner's death, are white.
Together, the twin developments have left many Americans with the sense that it's virtually impossible to hold police officers accountable for the killing of minorities.
"This is a deeply emotional day — for the Garner family, and all New Yorkers," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "His death was a terrible tragedy that no family should have to endure. This is a subject that is never far from my family's minds — or our hearts. And Eric Garner's death put a spotlight on police-community relations and civil rights — some of most critical issues our nation faces today."
De Blasio canceled a planned Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Plaza, and instead planned to meet Wednesday afternoon with elected officials, clergy members, and activists on Staten Island, the borough where Garner’s fatal confrontation with police occurred.
Ben Garner, Garner's father, stood Wednesday evening on the periphery of a group of dozens that gathered on the very ground where his son died.
"I'm just tired," he told msnbc. "But we got to keep going, keep marching not just today but tomorrow."
He wore a black sweatshirt and no jacket. He said he was tired of the wait, tired of the hurt and tired of being asked questions about his pain. Still, when urged by a pastor with him to address and calm the crowd seething with news of the non-indictment, he stepped to the fore and fumbled with a megaphone someone pushed into his hand.
"We don't need no looting. We don't need no burning," he said. "I want peace for Eric."
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement Wednesday reiterating de Blasio's sentiment that Garner's death was a tragedy, and calling on New Yorkers to "respect the legal process and rule of law." Cuomo acknowledged that "additional investigations ... may be appropriate" adding that "if there are improvements to be made and lessons to be learned, we at the state level are ready to act to better the system."
The July incident involving Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, and Pantaleo was captured on video by a cell phone camera, dovetailed with Brown’s shooting death to fuel widespread anger over police tactics and the treatment of minorities by law enforcement. Garner was approached by police who suspected him of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A New York medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide.
In an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul -- a likely 2016 presidential candidate -- weighed in on the Garner case. "I think it is hard not to watch that video of [Garner] saying 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' and not be horrified by it, but I think there is something bigger than just the individual circumstances," Paul said.
Paul blamed Washington for creating the circumstances that led to Garner's death. "Obviously the individual circumstances are important," Paul explained, "but I think it's also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on pack of cigarettes ... We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws."
Several members of New York's congressional delegation immediately denounced the Garner decision and called for a continued federal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
"We don’t understand how the grand jury could have arrived at this result," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez agreed. "How could you sit there as a juror, watch this video, and issue no indictment?," she asked. "What message do we send to the young black boy or the young brown-face Latino boy, in Bushwick, New York, or Red Hook, that no one is going to be there to protect you?"
Rev. Victor Brown, pastor of the Mount Sion Christian church, the Garner family’s church, called the news “shocking.” “It’s just very alarming to me that, given all of what the nation has seen – the videotape, the coroner’s report that says definitively that it was a homicide, it’s very difficult to believe that the grand jury would come forth with a decision not to indict,” Brown told msnbc’s Joy Reid.
Adding to the blow was the fact that the encounter was caught on camera. On Monday, President Obama announced that he'd push for a new federal program to provide body cameras to local police departments. But Wednesday's decision shows that even compelling visual evidence doesn't ensure that police officers will face charges in such situations.
Twitter erupted after the news broke that Pantaleo would avoid indictment — with some linking the story to events 1000 miles away.
“This must end,” tweeted Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who has been active in the protests against Brown’s killing, in response to the Garner news. “We cannot continue to have an entire group of Americans who can be killed without consequence or legal recourse.”
Activists used social media to call for demonstrations at various locations around New York City. Protests are expected Thursday in front of NYPD headquarters in lower Manhattan, among other places.
“And tonight we march,” tweeted New York civil rights activist Michael Skolnik. “Peacefully, but we definitely march.”
Khadijah Amon-Ra says she's been marching, protesting, and organizing for weeks in New York City around the events in Ferguson and on Staten Island with the Garner case. "When will it end. What will it take," she said, tears streaming down her face as she stood in a cold drizzle outside of the courthouse on Wednesday shortly after the jury's decision was announced.
"If people are able to watch the video of that man die and not care about the humanity lost and not have compassion, something is terribly wrong in this country," she added.
Jurial Alexander, 23, came out to the courthouse with his 1-year-old daughter, Abigail, and wondered sadly what the one-two punch of the Ferguson and Garner grand jury decisions meant for her. He said he'd wanted to believe his daughter would inherit a more just America than he'd experienced in his 23 years. But all that optimism faded away, he said, in the last couple weeks.
"I'm all hoped out," Alexander said. "After Ferguson it's not a surprise. It's hope after hope but all that hope is wasted."
Protesters barreled through the police barricades set up along the street of midtown Manhattan, leading to a tense standoff with police. Unable to surge past the barricades and holiday crowd gathered for the annual tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Plaza, groups held their ground at the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, alternating between chants of "hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe" -- nods to the lives of Brown and Garner, respectively. Eighty-three people were arrested overnight, according to police.
"I hope this will be the start of a movement. I really hope so," Kellon John of Brooklyn said. "America needs a revolution. We need another 1776 in this country."
A tweet from the NYPD —“The #NYPD is committed to rebuilding public trust. #Wehearyou” — aimed to ease tensions, but may only have inflamed them. It provoked a barrage of scorn, along with a few expressions of support, from other users.
“The NYPD should commit to not killing black people,” one responded.
The hashtag from the tweet, #Wehearyou, was trending on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, promoted by activists mocking the department’s response. Also trending: #icantbreathe – Garner’s words to police as he struggled under Pantaleo’s chokehold.
Meanwhile, some conservatives defended the police department.
“While the death of Eric Garner was tragic, all New Yorkers should respect the decision of the Staten Island grand jury not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo,” Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who has often been supportive of law enforcement, wrote on Facebook. “During this tense time in New York, it must be noted and remembered that no organization has done more to safeguard the lives of young African Americans in New York City than the NYPD.”
additional reporting by Amanda Sakuma