NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A march on Staten Island with what police estimated to be more than 2,500 protesters culminated at a rally on Saturday over the death of Eric Garner while in police custody.
The march, dubbed “We Will Not Go Back,” began around 12 p.m. at 204 Bay St. across from Tompkinsville Park in Staten Island, where 43-year-old Garner was killed.
Marchers, starting at the intersection where Garner was first confronted by police, walked behind a banner that said “We Will Not Go Back, March for Justice.”
Many in the crowd carried signs. Some said: “Police the NYPD” or “RIP Eric Garner.” But the most popular signs were “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” which emerged during protests in Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown, and “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last known words.
As WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane reported, protesters also chanted “I can’t breathe,” as they marched.
The rally proceeded past the office of Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who this week sent the case to a grand jury.
The march was prefaced by a service at Mount Sinai Church where Rev. Al Sharpton welcomed supporters and called for a peaceful demonstration against Garner’s police-involved death, 1010 WINS’ Derricke Dennis reported.
“And if you can do it to him you can do it to any citizen, we are not going to be silent while that happens,” Sharpton said to the crowd.
Among those speaking was Garner’s mother, who remembered him as her child.
“And I was proud of him because of the way he carried himself,” she said. “Hold your children close, always tell them you love them before you leave them. You don’t know when the last time you’re going to see them.”
Garner’s wife, Esaw Garner, also spoke at the rally, urging a peaceful protest.
“Let’s just make this a peaceful march and get justice for my husband so this doesn’t happen to nobody else, nobody else’s son,” she said.
The mother of Amadou Diallo, who was killed in a 1999 shooting by four NYPD officers, also spoke Saturday morning.
“Police cannot judge our sons and execute them for no reason,” she said.
The most surprising of appearances came from the head of the teacher’s union, Michael Mulgrew, Kramer reported.
“It’s time to teach, it’s time for us to follow the wishes of the Garner family and say we want the death to count for something, something good for all of us and all of our communities,” Mulgrew said.
Early on, Mulgrew’s decision to support the rally infuriated fellow labor leader Patrick Lynch, president of the PBA. He thought teachers should support cops, Kramer reported.
Former Gov. David Paterson was also on hand at Mount Sinai Church, CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported.
Sharpton has repeatedly called Garner’s death, and the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, a “defining moment” for the very nature of policing.
Garner, an asthmatic father of six, died on July 17 after he had been stopped by police for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
In cellphone video of the incident, an officer is seen placing his arm around Garner’s neck and then taking him to the ground after Garner refuses to be handcuffed.
Garner is heard saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!” He died a short time later.
The medical examiner’s office ruled Garner’s death a homicide, caused by the officer’s chokehold as well chest and neck compressions and prone positioning “during physical restraint by police.”
Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors, the medical examiner said.
Chokeholds are banned by the NYPD, but allowed under state law.
“This is not going away,” Sharpton said earlier this week. “We cannot have a society where police are automatically excused. The definition of a police state is where the citizenry cannot question police and when they do they are penalized.”
The NYPD vowed to have a non-confrontational police presence at Saturday’s event. The NYPD’s concern was avoiding the kind of confrontation seen in Ferguson after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, Kramer reported.
The marchers walked alongside dozens of police officers in parade gear, including polo shirts and pants. There were also officers in formal blue uniforms, but none had riot gear.
As CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported, men wearing suits and ties, orange arm bands and stern expressions locked arms to guard the protest march and prevent violence.
The men, many from the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, also tried to keep people away from Sharpton as he marched.
Ralliers also vowed to self-police.
“We’ll have marshals along the route, we’ll have marshals in the crowd, we’ll have marshals at the ferry terminal, we’ll have marshals galore,” said Rev. Kirsten John Foy, with the National Action Network. “We’re not here to destroy anything. We’re here to build a new city with a new vision.”
The largely-attended event was peaceful, 1010 WINS’ Dennis reported.
Sharpton said the message is not against all police, WCBS 880’s Jim Smith reported.
“If you’ve got a bag of apples, and there’s a rotten apple in the bag, the only way to protect the good apples is to take the rotten apple out,” Sharpton said.
The march was fueled by a caravan of buses that left from locations in New Jersey and New York City.
Seven buses set aside for protesters in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn departed for Staten Island at around 9:40 a.m., 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern reported.
Highway Patrol cruisers escorted the charter buses across the lower level of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, CBS 2’s Matt Kozar reported.
“So when we board those buses headed back today, we want the story to be that three or five whatever thousand came and reminded the world that you used an illegal chokehold. You thought he didn’t matter but he matters to us,” Sharpton said.
On board one of the buses was Chyann Starks, who said she feels it’s important to be apart of the rally.
“I think primarily awareness, that people are fed up and we don’t think this is acceptable by the police department,” she said. “And hopefully some reform, but we want to make our voices heard and let people know that this is not something we’re giving up on.”
“I am Eric Garner, I am Trayvon Martin. I am here for justice, this is about everyone being equal, everyone being treated equal. It’s about everyone being a human being”, one protester told Murnane.
In Elizabeth, N.J., more protesters hopped on buses and headed over the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island, CBS 2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
Saturday’s march united people from every age, race, nationality and religion, CBS 2’s Tracee Carrasco reported.
Saturday’s half-mile long route wound itself through a heavily minority neighborhood, one of several in the nation’s largest city where residents have said they feel unfairly targeted by police for suspicion of crime and enforcement of low-level offenses.
Mayor de Blasio did not attend the march, but spoke addressed it at an event at a Brooklyn church, saying everyone is feeling the pain and “tragic loss” of Garner.
“Of course people will raise their voices, concerns, needs. That’s normal, that’s necessary. And they’ll do it peacefully. That is how progress is made. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proved that change is made from the grassroots up and change is made by non-violent actions,” de Blasio said.
“Violence takes us backward, nonviolence takes us forward,” he added.
Sharpton and other activists have demanded that District Attorney Donovan bring criminal charges against the officers and have called for federal investigators to step in. But the Justice Department has signaled that it likely will wait for the local probe to conclude before making a decision.
“We are doing this because we want to see the pain of the family at least answered with justice, a fair investigation. If you have nothing to hide, if you’ve done nothing wrong then you should not resist a federal investigation,” Sharpton said Saturday.
Sharpton is now planning a similar march in Washington D.C., Smith reported.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who was seen on video placing Garner in the apparent chokehold, and another unidentified officer were placed on modified reassignment pending the outcome of the case.
Four emergency workers were suspended without pay pending an investigation.
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