Protests erupted in New York yesterday after a white police officer was cleared over the chokehold death of an unarmed black man – a case that drew comparisons to a fatal police shooting in Missouri.
Eric Garner, 43, died as police officers were attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street.
His death has again cast a spotlight on police tensions with African Americans, even though president Barack Obama and the US’s top law enforcement official, attorney-general Eric Holder, are both black.
Unlike the case in Ferguson, Missouri – where the circumstances of black teenager Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white policeman are in dispute – Mr Garner’s arrest was caught on videotape.
The case could have even wider repercussions, particularly as it happened in America’s foremost city and one with a liberal tradition.
New York City police said 83 people had been arrested, most for disorderly conduct.
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The decision by the Staten Island grand jury not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo heightened tensions that have simmered in the city since Mr Garner’s death on 17 July.
In the neighbourhood where he died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up – don’t choke!”
In Manhattan, demonstrators lay down in Grand Central Station, walked through traffic on the West Side Highway and blocked the Brooklyn Bridge. A city council member wept.
Hundreds of protesters converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, “Black lives matter” and “Fellow white people, wake up.” Mr Garner’s widow, Esaw, said: “This fight ain’t over – it just begun.”
But the demonstrations were largely peaceful, in contrast to the fireraising and looting that accompanied the decision ten days ago not to indict the white officer who shot Mr Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.
Mr Holder said federal prosecutors would conduct their own investigation into Mr Garner’s death. New York Police Department (NYPD) is also carrying out a probe, which could lead to internal charges against Mr Pantaleo, who remains on desk duty.
Mr Obama said the grand jury decision underscored the need to strengthen trust and accountability between communities and law enforcers.
In his first public comments, Mr Pantaleo said he was praying for Mr Garner’s family and hoped they accepted his condolences.
Police union officials and Mr Pantaleo’s lawyer argued he had used a move to restrain Mr Garner that had been taught by NYPD – not a banned manoeuvre – because Mr Garner was resisting arrest. They said he died because he was in poor health.
Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury had found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges. It could have brought a range of charges, from murder to a lesser offence such as reckless endangerment.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the videotape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn’t indict for anything,” Garner family lawyer Jonathan Moore said.
The family took part in a news conference with veteran civil rights leader the Rev Al Sharpton. Mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled his appearance at the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree lighting to hold a news conference at a Staten Island church.
“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” he said. “Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest.”
A video shot by an onlooker and posted on the internet showed Mr Garner telling police to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Mr Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Mr Garner’s neck seemingly in a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy. Mr Garner, who had asthma, was heard gasping: “I can’t breathe!”
A second video showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Mr Garner as he lay motionless on the ground. He died later in hospital.
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