Protests are set to continue throughout the US this week over the deaths of Eric Garner (43), Michael Brown (18), and Tamir Rice (12) — all unarmed men who died in confrontations with the police. Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oakland, New York, Miami, Xenia, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, DC, are just a few of the cities with organized protests in opposition to these and other alleged cases of police brutality.
The protests, now ongoing for nearly a week, erupted on Wednesday, December 3, after a grand jury in Richmond decided not to indict New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo over the death of Eric Garner. In a video uploaded to YouTube, Pantaleo can be seen to grab Garner with a chokehold, when Garner, without violence, resisted arrest for illegally selling cigarettes on the street.
“I cant breathe,” Garner repeated 11 times before his death. The phrase has now become the signature chant of peaceful demonstrators who have taken to the streets, blocking traffic, or lying silently in the thoroughfares of various cities.
Many of those demonstrating have been doing so not only against police abuse, but against racial discrimination, since those dead were black. “Racism kills,” read the placards of the marchers in New York.
Protesters have been arrested in Dallas, Washington DC, and New York, where more than 200 people were detained on the night of Thursday, December 4.
On Sunday night in Berkeley, protests turned violent when demonstrators clashed with police, damaged private property, and fought amongst themselves. In Seattle, seven people were arrested on Saturday, December 6, for throwing stones at the police and attempting to obstruct a highway.
For James Padilioni of the College of William and Mary, Virginia — a doctoral student of the US legacy of slavery — the protests are likely to develop a broader cultural significance beyond their immediate impact.
“I think the protests are important for a couple of reasons. The first is that they are making a visual disruption. Now while this inconveniences people who may not feel ‘involved’ with the situation, the truth is we all are involved. If some kind of reform is going to take place with the police, then it’s important that as many citizens as possible become aware of the situation,” he told the PanAm Post in relation to the demands of protesters.
For Padilioni, the marches are likely to kick-start a broader, more permanent movement against US police impunity: “Furthermore, the protests are helping activists to actually meet each other and organize. There are lots of activists that are teaming up and becoming linked to each other because they are meeting at the protests, rather than just blogging or posting online. I think that in a year from now, there will be several coalitions resulting from different activists getting a chance to meet face to face.”
Eric Garner: Not the First Killing
The ruling that acquitted Pantaleo for the death of Garner — without bringing the case to a public trial — has enraged the public against the police. It has served as the last straw after a spate of incidents of unpunished incidents of alleged police brutality in recent months.
After Garner’s death on July 15, the secret jury in Richmond heard 50 witnesses and studied 60 items of approved evidence. Among them were the four videos showing the use of force by Pantaleo and Garner’s death through asphyxiation.
The jury’s announcement came to light barely a week after another grand jury in Missouri decided to not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer accused of murdering Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9. The prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, stated that “there is no doubt that Wilson caused the death of Brown,” but “after following a rigorous investigation, the jury concluded that there was no reason to prosecute.”
In Brown’s case, the jury heard over 70 hours of statements from 60 witnesses, among them experts in forensics, toxicology, and firearms. Despite the amassed evidence, the jury decided not to bring charges against Wilson.
In Missouri, the protests didn’t wait for the results of the ruling. Ferguson was rocked by confrontations with the police after Brown’s death became known. In New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, and Oakland, protesters also showed solidarity with Brown and expressed their anger at the ruling.
Demonstrators have also been protesting against the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed on November 22 in Ohio by police officer Timothy Loehmann, when he confused a toy gun that Rice was carrying with a real firearm.
A security camera captured the moment when the police opened fire on Rice, seconds after arriving at the park where the boy was playing, following an anonymous call that warned of an armed person. The case is currently under investigation.
Padilioni asserts that US police officers believe they can act with impunity: “The first thing to mention is that over the last 50 years or so, the Supreme Court has ruled that unwarranted stops and searches are legal … this allows a cop to stop anyone on suspicion that they might have a weapon or some illegal substance on them, and they can search them on the spot. This [provides] protection for the police, but no protection for citizens against unwarranted searches and seizures.”
“The other problem is that the prosecutor’s office works with the police to gather evidence and testify against defendants during criminal proceedings. However, when the police do something that could be illegal, the prosecutor’s office is then supposed to use the police to gather evidence against the police. There’s a definite conflict of interest.”
Padilioni proposes that in such cases an independent body, disconnected from the relevant police department and with no links to those involved, should carry out investigations.
On Sunday December 7, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced the opening of an internal police investigation into the death of Eric Garner on Friday December 5, which could last “upwards of three to four months.”
“There will then be a department trial potentially if the advocate finds there are grounds for violations of our rules. That process is an open process, an open trial,” Bratton told CBS program Face the Nation in an interview.
Bratton refused to offer his personal feelings on viewing the video of Garner’s arrest, only saying that “I don’t think that anybody that watches that video is not disturbed by what they saw.”
Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.