Anger over police killings spills on to America’s streets

‘We can’t breathe,’ chant protesters as NYC choke-hold death puts justice in the dock

Demonstrators march through Washington following a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner. Photograph: Reuters

Demonstrators march through Washington following a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner. Photograph: Reuters


The sign over the Department of Justice in Washington reads: “The place of justice is a hallowed place.” For protesters circling the building, the American justice system is in a dark place.

Their signs read “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe”, evoking the last words of black man Eric Garner (43) who died in July after being held in a choke-hold by a white New York police officer on a Staten Island street.

On Wednesday a grand jury found there was nothing criminal in the actions of officer Daniel Pantaleo (29), who apprehended the man on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.

It comes a week after another jury decided not to charge white police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, and the anger of protesters has boiled over.

They are furious at the lack of criminal action over what they believe are examples of a justice system that is biased against black men and other minorities.

Some, among roughly 100 demonstrators at the Department of Justice on Thursday evening, said they could not believe that a grand jury found no crime in Garner’s death, particularly when it was caught on video and posted online for anyone to see, unlike the shooting of Brown.

‘Off the hook’

Her friends carried hand-written placards quoting African American civil rights leaders WEB DuBois – “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect” – and Martin Luther King Jr – “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

The signs capture the sense of futility these protesters feel about a broken system stacked against black Americans.

It was an appropriate location for the protest, the second night of demonstrations since the Garner decision.

The Justice building is almost halfway between the White House and US Congress, branches of government that protesters believe must do more to correct racial imbalances in the criminal justice system and in American policing.

“I really hope that actions speak louder than words right now,” said Kristina Mascarenas (24), as she marched towards the White House.

She said President Barack Obama wanted more money from Congress for lapel-mounted body cameras for on-duty police officers to make them accountable for violent actions, yet there was a video of Mr Garner’s fatal encounter with police and no charges had been brought.

“The people say it is for accountability but if you have accountability, how is that going to change things?”

‘Black lives matter’

As they walked, protesters chanted “No justice, no peace”, and “Hands up, don’t shoot”, in a reference to how some eyewitnesses reported seeing Brown when he was killed.

A number put their hand to their necks to symbolise the choke-hold that killed Garner.

Tyler McClenithan (23) was carrying a sign that said: “This weight is heavy – I can’t breathe.”

“I just feel, like, so heavy thinking about people being murdered on the streets,” he said.

The protest was one of a number nationwide held on Thursday night. Demonstrators took to the streets in Boston, Chicago and Oakland, California.

More than 200 people were arrested in New York City overnight for disorderly conduct or refusing to clear the streets.

In Washington, police kept their distance as protesters marched to within a block of the White House to stage a “die-in” by lying across the street and stopping traffic.

The protest’s chants and “hands up” gestures contrasted with the Christmas music being piped from the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony in front of the White House. “All I Want For Christmas Is Justice,” read one demonstrator’s sign.

Protesters hope the department of justice investigation ordered by Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general, might lead to charges on civil rights violations against the police officers.


The racial profiling extends into American society, he said.

“Sometimes women on the train clench their purse; people don’t want to sit next to me even if I am dressed like this, in a suit.

“They still look at me like I am a predator.”

Change would come if people continued to protest, he said, and if Obama and the justice department acted.