Under a cloudy sky on an unusually cool August day, they gathered: thousands of people of all races and ages. Babies in strollers, old women with walkers. Teenagers carrying sign with slogans saying,“Am I Next?” and “Jobs Not Repression.” Middle-aged folks from around the city, marching with their church groups and unions. A percussion band beating out a rhythm for the too-familiar chant" “No justice, no peace.”
This was the scene in Staten Island on Saturday at the “We Will Not Go Back” march. It was a model of peaceful protest in response to an ugly event: the death of Eric Garner, a man who died after being put in an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer who attempted to arrest him for the minor offense of allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. Garner, who was black, was unarmed. The Staten Island district attorney is taking the case to a grand jury.
The July 17 incident, captured on video by bystanders, prompted an outcry against the “broken windows” practice of policing favored by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who started the job in January after being brought in by incoming mayor Bill de Blasio.
A major part of Bratton’s assignment coming in was to improve relations with members of the city’s black and Latino community, long strained by the previous administration’s “stop and frisk” policy—which was successfully challenged in court by civil rights groups as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The de Blasio administration dropped the city’s defense of stop and frisk, as promised, when the new mayor came to office. But Bratton’s revival of “broken windows,” in which minor offenses such as selling loosies are aggressively pursued on the theory that less minor crime means less major crime, has caused controversy. Since Garner’s death, de Blasio has defended the concept.
“Broken windows kills,” read one sign carried by a protester.
Many others carried signs invoking the name of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white cop. Other signs put Brown’s and Garner’s names in a list of unarmed black people killed by police in New York: Ramarley Graham; Sean Bell; Amadou Diallo.
Still, though many in the crowd chanted anti-police slogans, there was no confrontation between NYPD officers and marchers. The hundreds of police on hand wore regular uniforms—not riot gear—and appeared relaxed, often chatting with protesters. Marchers could move freely through the streets. Cops moved barriers to let parents with strollers pass through. No one was arrested. No one was hurt. No property was damaged.
Ensuring a peaceful, civil march was a priority of organizers, police, and the mayor’s office. The week before the protest, as the unrest over the police shooting death of Brown intensified in Ferguson, de Blasio appeared with Bratton and Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network was organizing the event, and promised that things would be different in New York. “I think the communication between the NYPD and the march organizers has been exceptional. It’s been constant. It’s been collegial,” said de Blasio then.
Many of the marchers I spoke to (many of whom preferred to be identified by first name only) expressed relief at the lack of violence, and hope that this day would be the beginning of change.
“I feel like this event will promote the awareness of police brutality,” said Ricardo, a 17-year-old from the Bronx who rode the Staten Island ferry to the march with other members of the Urban Youth Collaborative.
"I hope it brings more attention to the inequalities of the application of criminal justice policy,” said 25-year-old Janer, who studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I know being a cop is a hard job, but there’s no excuse for [what happened to Garner].”
Her 28-year-old boyfriend, Sergio, said he was encouraged by the positive atmosphere at the protest, and by the way the police were handling the event. He, too, hopes for change. As a brown-skinned resident of New York, he knows how high the stakes are. “At the end of the day,” he said, “It could be us.”