They Shouted 'I Can't Breathe'

Eric Garner’s final words roared across Manhattan amid a symphony of traffic horns and police sirens Thursday night.

Andrees Latif/Reuters

For the second time in two weeks, unrest erupted in New York City. Thousands of protestors swarmed the streets on Wednesday night following a Staten Island grand jury decision to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Throughout the night Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” roared across Manhattan amid a symphony of traffic horns and police sirens.

The rally was all-too reminiscent of the nationwide demonstrations after the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson. Pockets of protesters mobilized across the city around 5:00 p.m. in areas such as Grand Central Station, Times Square, and Union Square. In Grand Central, dozens of activists laid sprawled on the floor in a staged “die in.” At each gathering people brandished signs against police brutality, many of which had marks and folds from previous use.

Demonstrators hold a "die in" in Grand Central Station (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

“As sad as it is I think it’s good to come into a community like this where everyone is fighting, not just for black lives but for all lives,” said Jennifer Seide who had first joined the protests at Union Square. “This idea that police can do anything without reproach is ridiculous, and I think people are starting to catch on.”

Then after 6:30 p.m. a group in Union Square began its march down the city sidewalks. The thousand-strong crowd stretched several blocks and was followed alongside by a straight-lined battalion of police officers on foot, scooter and squad car. The sound of the chants, “Justice For Eric Garner” and “No Justice, No Peace” alerted onlookers who lined against large office windows overlooking the march underneath.

Protesters march through the streets in response to the grand jury's decision in the Eric Garner case (Seth Wenig/AP)

One activist, Raquel Carter found herself a leader among a group of about 300 protesters. She recalled an interaction she had with a black officer standing in line with about a dozen white officers. “Tears were welling up in his eyes because we all asked him ‘Are you ashamed?’” she said. “He knows he could have easily not made it into the police force, and then he’d have been one of us in the streets or he could have been killed. Or that could have been his brother.”

Police officers form a line during a protest against the grand jury decision (Andrees Latif/Reuters)

After leaving Union Square, the group then marched toward the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. But many hit a snag while navigating toward the ice rink as NYPD officers had erected barriers to thwart demonstrators from disturbing the Christmas tree lighting. The barriers prompted some demonstrators to chant, “No Christmas for Eric Garner!” About 50 police officers, many with helmets, batons, and zip-wire handcuffs, ordered the crowd to the sidewalks. Not everyone obeyed. The crowd grew angrier and many lost the calm composure that had carried them so far. And then in an instant, chaos erupted. The police grabbed a few protestors still on the streets, slammed them on the back of police scooters and handcuffed them. Media members were among those arrested and taken away from the scene. The arresting blitz soon subsided.

Activists chant and hold signs on Times Square (Julio Cortez/AP)

After an hour trying to progress with no avail, many members gave up pushing through to the tree and instead set their sights on Times Square. The demonstrators congested city streets while traveling to their new rendezvous, only parting for an ambulance that needed to race through. The crowd marched toward the West Side Highway near Manhattan Cruise Terminal with the goal of shutting the road down. Marcos Gonzales, who wore a black hoodie with the words “black lives matter” painted in red, felt the protest still needed additional momentum to be effective. “Not enough people are doing enough,” he said. “It’s really upsetting that there’s a younger generation and a lot of them are not here right now. We need more numbers to fight this.”

Demonstrators block the West Side Highway during a protest against the grand jury decision on the death of Eric Garner, in New York December 3, 2014. (Andrees Latif/Reuters)

A short distance down the road, a line of police officers halted the marchers. By this point, the highway's traffic had come to a standstill. The NYPD gave an order to disperse or risk detainment. Again with batons and zip-ties they advanced. The activists retreated up the highway towards the Henry Hudson Parkway. Some ran. Others marched. But everyone chanted. And as they commenced up the highway, cars stuck in traffic lowered their windows and joined in approval.

Protestors enter the Henry Hudson Parkway during their march. (Andrees Latif/AP)

The entrance to the Henry Hudson Parkway was another tense moment for the protestors. The NYPD, numbering close to 100, were nearing to their location. About 40 feet in front of the group the police officers halted their movements. Some of the activists walked toward the police and staged another “die in” lying down on the asphalt before them. The standoff was short-lived as the police announced that they were about to make more arrests and the demonstrators continued to move. Some moved to the sidewalks by the parkway, while reports state that the other members of the group then traveled to the Brooklyn Bridge and successfully shut it down before being broken up and some arrested by cops.

Activists head on the eastbound traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Jon Robinson from Brooklyn had contemplated coming to Union Square two weeks ago following the Ferguson non-indictment, but then decided against it. He said he felt a little hopeless at the time and that protesting was akin to a “child throwing a tantrum” while the authorities watched from the sidelines fully aware that things would go back to normal in a few days. "We’ve had plenty of opportunities to be upset and change, so how many more times are we going to do this?”And although he now stood outside the Henry Hudson Parkway, mere inches away from arrest, having marched with more than a thousand people all night, he still was not sure if his efforts would make a difference. “I’ve got this rage and hunger for change," he said. "But I also don’t know how you really cause change when you’ve got a system so broken.”