‘I can’t breathe!’ Protesters chant Garner’s chokehold plea

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(CNN) — New Yorkers sat down in Times Square, filling its streets and sidewalks, and in the ambient light of its high-rising video walls and colorful advertisements, they immortalized some of Eric Garner’s last words.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” they chanted in unison.

It was Garner’s cry, as he lay near death in the chokehold of police Officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17, on a Staten Island sidewalk, where police had taken him down.

A grand jury decided not to prosecute Pantaleo on criminal charges in Garner’s death. The announcement triggered protests.

As in the case of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot dead by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, Garner was black, and Pantaleo is white.

Garner was also unarmed and did not attack police officers, although he verbally resisted arrest. He had his back to Pantaleo, when the officer threw his forearm around his throat.

Garner was pronounced dead that day at age 43. Police had suspected him of selling cigarettes illegally, a suspicion he had been arrested on before. Garner had a criminal record including 30 arrests.

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‘Hear us; hear us’

For weeks after his death, protesters vented their anger peacefully on the streets over the disturbing takedown, which Garner’s friend captured on a cell phone video that went viral.

Demonstrations abated for while, but Wednesday’s grand jury decision sent angry New Yorkers streaming through Manhattan’s pavement gridwork again.

“Hear us; hear us; listen and hear,” was their credo, a protest organizer told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

“We want to be where we feel our message will be most effective,” he said.

On their way through town, they combed neighborhoods to pick up sympathizers who joined them.

The crowd was diverse, filmmaker Spike Lee pointed out to CNN’s Deborah Feyerick, as he strolled down the street with his son. “This has nothing to do with black and white. This is New Yorkers together,” he said.

No stores burned

Non-violence was their pledge, the protest organizer said. “Our intention is to be peaceful, orderly and chant our message and make people recognize who we are.”

Garner’s family wanted it that way.

Standing outside the store where his son had gasped in the chokehold, Garner’s father, Ben Carr, told a crowd, “We ain’t tearing up nothing. We ain’t burning up nothing… The police is our problem. No violence. That is all I ask.”

“We want justice for Eric,” he said. He was hopeful about a federal investigation into Garner’s death that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced.

Echoes of Ferguson resounded in New York in chants of “No justice, no peace! Hands up, don’t shoot!”

“Ferguson is Everywhere,” one demonstrator’s sign read, but the tinge of street violence and police heavy-handedness did not make its way from Missouri to New York.

No stores were looted or burned; no bottles were thrown.

No riot gear

The battalions of police watching the protest wore no riot gear and refrained from the show of armored vehicles and assault rifles that appeared in the St. Louis suburb.

Plainclothes officers walked with the New York crowds to sniff out potential trouble ahead of time.

Officers did arrest about 30 people, Police Commissioner William Bratton told CNN’s Don Lemon. They were on the lookout for people attempting to block traffic for long periods of time.

Many protesters wandered between cars, stopping traffic for a few minutes at a time, but they usually moved on.

There was no violence, no vandalism, Bratton said. “These demonstrators are non-violent.”

Disbelief over decision

Protesters who saw the video of Garner’s choking were in disbelief over the grand jury verdict that there was no “reasonable cause” to indict Pantaleo.

“I don’t know what video they were looking at,” said Garner’s mother Gwen Carr. “Evidently, it wasn’t the same one that the rest of the world was looking at.”

Garner’s widow rejected the grand jury decision and vowed to pursue justice for him.

“Somebody that gets paid to do right did wrong and he’s not held accountable for it. But my husband’s death will not be in vain. As long as I have a breath in my body I will fight the fight till the end,” she said.

Fourteen white and nine nonwhite members served on the grand jury, according to law enforcement sources. A total of 12 jurors who heard all the evidence had to be in agreement for a decision.

On the day of the grand jury’s decision, the New York Police Department, in an attempt to bolster public confidence, announced plans to have some officers wear body cameras.

Defending Pantaleo

Bratton said that he understood people’s anger over the scenes on the video but that he also trusted the legal process and the grand jury’s judgment in spite of the images.

“As much as we think video is the final determinant, it is not,” he said. The grand jury saw much more evidence and argument than the public or he have seen, he said.

The grand jury conducted dozens of interviews with witnesses, including 22 civilians, and met between September 29 and December 3, said Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr.

Pantaleo’s police union defended his tackle.

“It is clear that the officer’s intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the takedown technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.

“No police officer starts a shift intending to take another human being’s life,” he said.

Officer’s fate

Pantaleo could still face punishment. Aside from the federal civil rights investigation, the NYPD is conducting an internal proceeding to determine if he and other officers violated department policy.

The NYPD prohibits the use of chokeholds.

If the department finds Pantaleo in violation, his case will land on Bratton’s desk.

“I’m going to be making a decision relative to the officer once we’ve had our trial here,” he said.

Two lawsuits have previously been filed against Pantaleo. The plaintiffs in both suits allege false arrest, unlawful imprisonment, civil rights violations and other charges.

One suit from 2013 was dismissed in January 2014, while the second, from February 2014, remains open.

The New York Medical Examiner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide. The cause of death was “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

But the medical examiner also listed acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease as contributing factors in Garner’s death

Change at NYPD

The NYPD is also altering its arrest tactics, Bratton said. “We are in the process of retraining the whole department on issues of the use force.”

Garner’s death placed a finger in the wound of longstanding tensions between police and minority communities, especially given that the majority of people stopped under the former “stop-and-frisk” police policy were African-American or Hispanic.

A federal court has ruled that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional and tantamount to racial profiling.

The NYPD has reduced stops and cut down the number of arrests stemming from them, Bratton said.

‘National moment of grief’

President Barack Obama said the Garner case reflected a longtime sentiment that police in America have not dealt fairly with minority communities.

“We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust, and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to allay tensions, saying that he had received assurances from Washington that the federal investigation of Garner’s death would move forward “expeditiously and with a clear sense of independence.”

Pantaleo gave his condolences to Garner’s family in a statement.

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Garner’s widow rejected them. She said, “The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breath.”