Will NYC Follow Ferguson After Grand Jury Fails to Indict Cop Who Killed Eric Garner?

Human Rights

When I asked local organizer Josmar Trujillo on Tuesday if he thought there would be an indictment for Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner after putting him in a choke hold, he said he wasn’t sure.

“One side of my brain tells me that it doesn’t make any sense not to indict him; it’s on video,” Trujillo said. “Politically, it doesn’t make sense to defend this cop. But I don’t know, it’s a Staten Island district attorney, and it’s the most conservative borough in New York. And it could potentially be a non-indictment. And if that happens all hell could break loose. Maybe.”

On Wednesday afternoon, news broke that the grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo. That night, thousands took to the streets in New York City to protest the jury's decision. Chanting "hands up don't shoot," and "black lives matter!" protestors squared off with NYPD officers -- many in riot gear -- throughout the city. Will the protests continue and escalate?

NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton recently met with elected officials and some leaders of big anti-police brutality organizations in Staten Island to coordinate the response to the grand jury decision. One local news site reported: “Staten Island is not Ferguson. That was the message after a 90-minute meeting in St. George Monday between Police Commissioner William Bratton, community leaders and elected officials”

Trujillo said Bratton is trying to create a chorus of people to put limitations on community members’ protests.

“They’re trying to make sure they can have some level of control so they can be able to come into a controlled rally and say some rhetoric on racism and [that] we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “But at the end of the day, just make sure that it’s not out of their control because if it’s out of their control then it’s something they’re afraid of.”

Indeed, the Associated Press recently reported that the NYPD sent detectives to St. Louis “to gather intelligence on ‘professional agitators’ who frequent protests and to share strategies for quelling violence.”

“Bratton has always reached out and coordinated with other police departments, not just in America, but overseas,” Trujillo said. “The NYPD has for years had public detectives stationed in Israel and across the Middle East, so it makes perfect sense for them to be coordinating in Ferguson.… It’s more like a message to activists to imply that if you’re going over there, because some New Yorkers have, we’re keeping track of you. So it’s meant to scare activists from showing solidarity with Ferguson, from connecting the dots. It’s a scare tactic.”

But just because the NYPD has made attempts to subdue the protests following the grand jury’s decision, it doesn’t mean protesters will comply. Trujillo said the spontaneous protests in NYC following the grand jury decision in Ferguson were uncontrolled in a good way. Protesters rallied in Times Square and ultimately shut down three bridges.

“It was still very powerful,” he said. “I don’t remember feeling that since the Trayvon Martin protest.”

Trujillo said it’s important that protests take shape in a somewhat organic fashion, led by those most affected by the culture of police brutality. He continued, "We need some level of experimentation. Not in a sense of just throwing things around and smashing things just recklessly with no control over each other. We need to be accountable, but we do need to do things outside of the traditional venues. And by letting these protests happen and by letting young people of color be in control, new and fresh ideas can come to the table and we can create a new civil rights movement potentially."

Trujillo added, "But we won’t do that if we have some of these traditional and politically connected people taking control of it and herd people into those traditional things like, ‘let’s do a city council bill,’ or ‘let’s wait until four years from now and elect a new guy.’ We need this to be open and have the space to find out what works and what doesn’t work."

One thing that certainly doesn’t work for Trujillo is Bratton's "broken windows" theory of policing, which aims to prevent major crimes by stopping low-level crime. Trujillo is a member of New Yorkers Against Bratton, an ad hoc group of activists, community advocates and parents formed after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would bring Bratton back to New York as the city's police commissioner. The group, along with seven other community groups, has formed the Broken Windows Coalition, which demands the removal of Bratton and a rejection of broken windows policing. The group wants this to remain one of the main focuses of the community both during and after the protests. And just as they don’t want their protests controlled, those living with the realities of police harassment don’t want their message controlled either.

“Most of the groups and most of the political establishment in the city won’t say things like ‘Bratton shouldn’t be here, Bratton needs to go,’” Trujillo said. “Part of the reason we focused on that message is it differentiates people who have a real sense of history about Bratton and don’t want to be harassed for low-level crimes.”

We've seen evidence of broken windows, which unfairly targets communities of color, in police brutality cases nationwide. In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson approached Michael Brown for walking in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk. In NYC, Officer Daniel Pantaleo stopped Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner.

“Broken windows is the main contributor to the massive amounts of interactions between cops and community members that increases the likelihood that more confrontations like this will happen,” Trujillo said. “People here remember that before the '90s, if you arrested someone for sitting on the sidewalk or selling loose cigarettes on the street like Eric Garner, cops would have been like, ‘this is ridiculous, this is not what I’m here for. But in the '90s that became the dominant idea in the police department with Bratton and then it spread to other cities.”

A recent report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that misdemeanor arrests in NYC have increased from 60,000 a year in 1980 to 250,000 a year in 2012. Trujillo said he thinks it’s inevitable that the conversation in the city and ultimately the nation will be around broken windows. He recalls one city councilmember calling the theory the “5,000-pound elephant in the room.”

“Politically these things usually play out in a way that eventually the pressure just becomes enough,” Trujillo said. “And the issue just becomes so politically toxic like ‘stop-and-frisk’ was that things are going to have to go. And Bratton won’t stay if he’s being challenged like that. He’s going to go. We’re here to grease the wheels and make it go faster.”

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