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From East St. Louis to Staten Island, protesters unite

From East St. Louis to Staten Island, thousands of Americans gathered to show support for victims of police brutality and gun violence.
A demonstrator holds a sign bearing the likeness of Eric Garner and Michael Brown before a march to protest the death of Garner, Aug. 23, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York, N.Y
A demonstrator holds a sign bearing the likeness of Eric Garner and Michael Brown before a march to protest the death of Garner, Aug. 23, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York, N.Y

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- From a small gathering here with the father of Trayvon Martin, to a rally in Staten Island where an estimated 5,000 people protested the death of Eric Garner, Americans came together Saturday in a show of support and solidarity with the victims of police brutality and gun violence.

At a casual gathering in Jones Park, Tracy Martin's return here was both an intimate homecoming -- Martin grew up in East St. Louis -- and an opportunity to lend his voice to a problem as pervasive in Florida, where his son Trayvon was killed nearly two years ago, as it is across the river in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed two weeks ago. It is the same problem in this city as in so many others across the country. 

“It’s all too familiar,” he told msnbc. “I look at their situation, I look at my situation, and I say to myself, this is why we’re here, trying to build better communities. ... There’s so much violence going on here that’s going on unnoticed.”

Residents mixed with a handful of black police officers from local agencies who turned out to show their support. They posed with Martin in front of a banner honoring Brown, and handed their cell phones to by-standers so they could have their picture taken with the father-turned-activist.

Martin, who has started a foundation in his son’s name to help families of kids lost to violence, was already planning to visit East St. Louis before Brown was killed. “Once that situation happened, I felt compelled to reach out to the family, talk to the family, give them my condolences, let them know I share their pain,” he said.

He hasn’t had a chance to meet the family face-to-face, but has spoken with them and said they are handling the tragedy and ensuing attention with “grace and dignity.”

Sgt. Rory Stewart of the East St. Louis Park District called what happened in Ferguson a “black eye” on his profession. “It’s going to take a while to regain trust from the public. It’s a shame when people look at your uniform and are afraid. We are peacekeepers, not vigilantes.”

More than 800 miles away in New York City, thousands of protesters descended on the Tompkinsville area of Staten Island on Saturday to rally against police brutality in the wake of a local man’s killing by an apparent chokehold.

Chanting “I can’t breathe” -- among the final words uttered by 43-year-old Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died July 17 at the hands of a white NYPD officer -- an estimated 5,000 protesters marched from the area where Garner died to outside the 120th Precinct, near the Staten Island Ferry.

Hundreds of NYPD officers, community affairs officers, and marshals of various groups lined the streets to maintain order, offering a distinctly different scene from those coloring stories out of Ferguson, where the killing of another unarmed black man by a white police officer sparked two weeks of violence and unrest in the streets. Calls for peace and civility permeated Saturday’s Staten Island event, which proceeded without incident.

“We are not here to tear down we’re here to build up,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, which organized the march. “We are not here to cause violence, we’re here because violence was caused.”

Eric Garner was stopped by police last month for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. In a video recorded by a bystander, an officer is seen wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck after he refused to be handcuffed. The 350-pound father of six could be heard saying “I can’t breathe” repeatedly. He died shortly afterward.

The medical examiner’s office ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by the “compression of his neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors, added the medical examiner.

Chokeholds, while legal under state law, have been banned in New York City for about 20 years. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was seen in the video wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck, was stripped of his gun and placed on modified duty. Four EMS responders were also suspended without pay.

On Tuesday, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan said he would begin presenting evidence to a grand jury next month. But civil rights activists like Sharpton are pushing for a federal investigation.

“Those who break the law must be held accountable just like anybody else,” the msnbc host said Saturday. “We’ve come to do NYPD a favor. We’re trying to help you deal with the rotten apples.”

In anticipation of the march, city officials braced for a potentially violent situation. The Staten Island Chamber of Commerce sent a flier to hundreds of businesses advising them to close up shop, and many along the march route heeded the warning.

“They say it’s going to be peaceful, but all it takes is one person and who knows what’s going to happen,” said Rolando Daly, an employee at Key Food, one of the businesses that kept its doors open. Daly said he had known Garner for 20 years.

“He was just shopping here that same day it happened,” said Daly. “This ain’t the first time this has happened between individuals and the police.”

But the march remained peaceful -- at times almost celebratory -- with protesters swaying to disco music at the rally site. Even as the sky threatened to pour rain, the solemn call for change never waned.

“I’m marching today because it’s hitting a crisis point, the number of blacks getting killed,” said 52-year-old Anthony Wilson, who drove up from Philadelphia. “I just think that there has to be a way for a humane form of policing.”

Emma Margolin contributed reporting from Staten Island, New York.