Is Ferguson-Style Unrest Coming to New York City?

December 3, 2014
John Surico

Update: The Staten Island grand jury ​voted not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for his role in Eric Garner's death this summer.

Last Monday night, the Ferguson fallout spread to 170 cities across the country,​ ​New York among them. Hundreds of protestors flooded Times Square and managed to shut down major bridges, tunnels, and avenues. And, in the middle of it all, NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton was splattered with fake blood amidst chants of "No justice, no peace!" 

In a city all too familiar with police brutality, the Ferguson grand jury's decision to not indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown hit home. And now New Yorkers have their own grand jury to worry about.

Sometime in the next day or two, a group of citizens on Staten Island will likely decide whether or not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for t​he tragic chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner last July. The disaster left an already-hot New York simmering with tension this summer, especially as millions watched online video of Garner's last seconds of life, when he repeated, hauntingly, "I can't breathe!"

Convened in September, this grand jury has taken longer than the one in Ferguson. With ​talk of race relations and law enforcement reform now dominating what passes for the national discourse, NYC could offer up quite the sequel to last week's unrest in the St. Louis area.

"There's little to no faith that there will be justice for Eric Garner," Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Communities United For Police Reform (CPR), told me. "What happened with Eric Garner is not isolated or disconnected; it is part of a larger systemic problem, in which these situations of excessive, lethal force consistently take place."

As if to reinforce the trends, numbers released by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD on Tuesday hewed to a familiar theme: progress for some, but discrimination for too many. The citywide crime rate is​ do​wn 4.4 percent this year, the number of stop-and-frisk searches has plummeted, and marijuana arrests have dropped 61.2 percent since a n​ew decriminalization policy was put in place two weeks ago. 

Still, the minorities remained far more likely to be stopped by cops than whites, according to sta​ts released by the New York Civil Liberties Union. And we continue to see these batshit craz​y videos of cops abusing citizens and bear witness to the deaths of "tota​l innocents" like Akai Gurley, who was shot two weeks ago in Brooklyn for basically no reason. 

"In terms of discriminatory policing," Gonzalez said, obviously exhausted, "not much has changed."

In New York City, the list of victims goes on: Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, and now Eric Garner. All those names have a similar story behind them—a white police officer kills an unarmed black man, using self-defense as justification. But rarely do you have back-to-back decisions on two high-profile cases happening within weeks of each other, leaving little time for the nation to decompress from the first. 

Gonzalez told me that the day after the Staten Island grand jury's decision—some ​reports suggest it could come as soon as Wednesday—numerous grassroots groups will gather in Foley Square, near City Hall in lower Manhattan. Word is still not out on what will happen on Staten Island, the crime scene and home of Garner. When he passed away, Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network tussled with City Hall, threatening to shut down the massive Verrazano Bridge. The beef was eventually squashed, but protests still spread across the city.

The boys in blue began preparation for Michael Brown-style protests last week, in—where else?—Ferguson. W​NYC reported that NYPD personnel were sent to Missouri to monitor the mass unrest, and Bratton later to​ld the Wall Street Journal that the mission was to "bring back lessons that might be learned from their experience to our city."

This can be read in two ways: Either the NYPD expects Staten Island to burn, or the department is simply trying to gather as much information on potentially violent protests as it can for undefined future events. Marc Krupanski, a program officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, told me he's pretty confident the recon was done as prep for the Garner decision, but that this is a normal NYPD initiative. 

"This isn't the first time NYPD—or other US police—have done this," he explained. "They've routinely sent police to mass demonstrations around the free trade pacts, World Bank/IMF meetings, or G8 meetings around the US and internationally."

When asked what the NYPD's post–grand jury plans were, a senior official in the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice referred me to remarks made by Bratton on Tuesday, in which he indicated he's met with various community and religious groups on Staten Island to ensure calm. Extra cops will be deployed to handle the situation, he added, in an effort to avoid the burning cars and looted stores we saw in Missouri.

"Will they engage in some type of demonstration no matter which way the jury goes? Certainly," Bratton told reporters. "But I think that there will be an ability—that people will get to have their voices heard without disturbances. We, on the other hand, on the police side, will naturally gear up to deal with any potential contingency that might occur."

Eric Snipes, Garner's 18-year-old son, told the Dail​y News ​this week that he didn't want see chaos in the streets, echoing the wishes of Brown's family in Missouri. "It's not going to be a Ferguson-like protest because I think everybody knows my father wasn't a violent man and they're going to respect his memory by remaining peaceful," Snipes said. "It's not going to be like it was there." He still hoped to see Pantaleo indicted, telling the jurors to "go to the video."

It is the video, Gonzalez told me, that changes everything. We can see exactly what happened in the last seconds of Garner's life, rather than ​listen to Darren Wilson recount how he felt like a five-year-old fighting Hulk Hogan. "All the focus is on one police officer, too," she added. "Three other police officers are caught on tape not doing anything, while Eric is on the floor, dying." (There's also the matter of the EMTs who ​stood idly by after Garner went down, though they do not face indictment.)

This is one of the first police brutality cases that puts the idea of ​copwatch to the test. The premise that police officers should be filmed at all times has helped fuel NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's recent decision to strap some NYPD officers with body cameras, a program ​​starting with nine officers in six precincts on Wednesday. 

The mayor is stuck in a role similar to what President Obama faced with Ferguson. He's been asked to do more, but is relatively powerless, legally. He has advised citizens not to connect the dots between Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but they will anyway. And he has a direct connection to the plight of colored communities as a parent; just as Obama said Trayvon Martin could've been his son, de Blasio has ​referenced the safety of Dante, his black son. 

So far, protests under Mayor de Blasio have mostly remained civil. Commissioner Bratton has taken a more cooperative approach to unrest than his predecessor, Ray Kelly, who was notorious for deciding to raid Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night, spelling doom for Occupy Wall Street. Thirty-one New Yorkers were arrested at the initial Ferguson protests in Augu​st, Bratton said Tuesday, and no vandalism was reported.

But according to Gonzalez, the fate of Eric Garner is more personal here—it opens a different wound, one that has been deepening for decades. If anything, Ferguson just reminded New Yorkers that their city is bleeding. "In terms of how the new mayor responds, we will see," she said. "New York City is at a moment where we've been waiting a long time for change. Just like Eric said to the cops, 'This stops today.'"

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Topics: Eric Garner