NEW YORK—With their heads tilted downwards, the family members of black men who recently died at the hands of police—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley—linked arms and closed their eyes in prayer.
“Tomorrow, as they sit across their tables in different cities and look at empty seats, know that that emptiness reflects our failure as a society,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said on Wednesday afternoon, at a press conference held at his civil rights organization’s headquarters in Harlem.
The parents of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., arrived in New York City two days after a grand jury in St. Louis County announced that it would not indict the officer responsible for Brown’s death. Sharpton’s organization, the National Action Network, is working with Brown’s family and the others.
In July, Garner died in Staten Island after a police officer used a chokehold while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner, who suffers from asthma and hypertension, was caught on a bystander’s recorded video shouting “I can’t breathe” several times, as a group of police officers brought him to the ground.
Last week Gurley died from a gunshot to the chest when a police officer patrolling the stairwell of a Brooklyn public housing project accidentally discharged his weapon, according to police.
In the days following the grand jury decision, protests erupted across the country. In New York City, protestors have connected Brown’s death with the cases of Garner and Gurley, claiming a widespread culture of police brutality and racial profiling against young men of color.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Al Sharpton said in his prayer, “may they have not died in vain, but that we all make sure their deaths become the birth of a new wave of dealing with law enforcement and community responsibility in this country.”
But unlike in Ferguson, protests against police-related deaths have largely been peaceful in New York City. In August, thousands marched in Staten Island to protest Garner’s death, in the neighborhood where Garner spent his last moments.
Although protestors were heavy on emotions, they remained nonviolent. Police officers were also restrained and stood back to allow parade marshals to monitor the crowds.
In the wake of Garner’s death, the mayor also tried to mend police-community relations by consulting with local community leaders like Sharpton. In August, the mayor, Sharpton, and Bratton met with clergy of different faiths to discuss easing tensions between police and residents.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Bratton have both acknowledged that the police officer who restrained Garner had violated a police department ban on using chokeholds.
Amid criticism from elected officials and the public, Bratton promised a re-training course on use-of-force for all 35,000 officers in the police department. The three-day course will teach officers how to deal with people who resist arrest and restrain them without physically harming them.
On Tuesday, the mayor announced that close to $29 million in the city’s budget will be allocated for the retraining.
NYC Ferguson Protests
In the past three days of protesting against the Ferguson decision, New Yorkers have blocked major roadways and bridges, from the FDR Drive to the Brooklyn Bridge. But police have mostly allowed protestors to voice their grievances, only making arrests when people fail to disperse after police instruct them to do so.
So far, 10 people have been arrested in Ferguson-related protests, six for disorderly conduct and four for resisting arrest, according to the police department.
At a recent promotion ceremony for NYPD officers, commissioner William Bratton told reporters that the police are giving protestors “a little breathing room.”
“As long as they remain non-violent, as long as they don’t engage in issues that cause fear or create vandalism, we will work with them to allow them to demonstrate,” he said.
As the nation reels from the Ferguson decision, a grand jury in Staten Island will announce in mid-December whether to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Garner in a chokehold.
Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether Sharpton anticipates unrest if the grand jury decide not to indict Pantaleo, he responded that he wasn’t worried about violent protests, but the lack of accountability that decision would imply.
“What I’m afraid is that there will not be indictments of police officers killing unarmed people. I think we are so busy promoting the reaction to injustice that we’re not reacting to the injustice,” he said.