The National Action Network and NAACP’s “We Will Not Go Back” march in support of Eric Garner, the Black Staten Islander who was slain last month at the hands of White NYPD officers, was peaceful—yet heavily policed. Oddly, it seemed a handful of cops of color may have been bussed in to represent Staten Island's predominantly White 120th precinct as well, an effort, perhaps, to ease concerns over alleged departmental racism.
Most of the businesses in the neighborhood of Tompkinsville on the Island’s eastern shore apparently closed in preparation for potential looting and rioting from the schoolteachers, veterans and transportation workers that gathered. The racially and generationally diverse group of protesters included Staten Island residents, mothers with their children, a splattering of college kids, church groups, labor unions and human rights organizations.
Donning colorful homemade t-shirts, they waved posters and signs with slogans like “Film the Police” and “Killer Cops Must Be Held Accountable.”
Instead of a riot, what occurred was an orderly procession down Victory Blvd, albeit, punctuated with non violent expressions of rage and disbelief at the longstanding trend of harassment and brutal treatment of Blacks by the police.
“What did Eric say?” went one call from the bullhorn. “It stops today!” the crowd responded.
They also chanted “No Justice, No Peace,” and “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,”— Eric Garner’s reported last words while being held in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Just before the march began, former New York Governor David Paterson received a standing ovation at Mt. Sinai United Christian Church on Pike Street as he relayed the history of police brutality against Blacks in New York City over the last few decades.
“We marched in 1964,” Paterson said, “when a kid named James Powell who was 15 years old was killed by a police lieutenant named Thomas Gilligan who actually kicked the body to roll it over to make sure he was dead…
“So whether it was Clifford Glover in 1973; Randolph Evans in 1977; Arthur Miller in Brooklyn in 1979; Michael Stewart in Brooklyn in 1984; Eleanor Bumpers in the Bronx in 1985; Nicholas Bartlett, Anthony Baez, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham and now Eric Garner, we will march for all of them!”
Paterson’s list of unarmed blacks slain by NYPD though long was not exhaustive as it left out many others including, Nicholas Nequan Heyward, Sean Bell, Kimani Grey. No officer has ever been charged for these NYPD killings.
Throughout speeches from march organizer, Rev. Al Sharpton, members of Garner’s family, labor union leaders, city councilmen and church elders, the community outrage was continually qualified by statements about not being “anti-police” and with appeals to the “good cops,” to deal with the “bad apples.”
But Norman Marshall, a 57-year-old Black Staten Islander, and an elder at a Queens church, shared that he believes the problem is systemic, goes beyond a few bad actors, and that police leadership is to blame.
“Staten Island is the capital of racism,” Marshall said. “They are very, very, very, very racist here. When the cops pull over White people they treat them differently than the Blacks. If you’re White you can stay in the car. If you’re Black they’ll make you get out of the car so they can frisk you.“
Marshall said he thinks the NY Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton is to blame: “If he’s the head and he can’t reprimand bad cops, that means he’s as bad as them. I don’t know why de Blasio asked him to come back. de Blasio says he’s against stop and frisk, but Bratton’s the one who invented ‘stop and frisk’ under Giuliani. Ray Kelly just implemented it more. Bratton needs to step down. In general, he’s not good for African-Americans. He’s biased.”
Before heading to the march, Rev. Al Sharpton mentioned to EBONY that the single thing he wanted to come out of the march was “police reform…. whether it’s Ferguson, Missouri, or Staten Island, or Los Angeles…we need new laws and we need the laws we have upheld.”
Shapton backed off of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when asked if he was doing enough to combat police brutality against African Americans. “The question is not a political one. It’s a criminal justice issue," he said. "The first question is: Will federal prosecutors step in, and will prosecutors deal with the illegal chokehold.”
When later asked if he was happy that the office of Staten Island District Attorney has decided to let a Staten Island grand jury decide whether to criminally charge the officers involved in Garner’s death, he said: “We want to see a federal grand jury.
Sharpton said that he had serious concerns about “Broken Windows,” a policy enacted by Bratton that focuses on stepping up arrests for petty crimes like selling untaxed cigarettes, the crime Garner was accused of at the time of his killing. Sharpton thinks the policy leads to harassment of generally peaceful citizens and a disproportionate number of arrests in the Black community. But when asked if Police Commissioner Bill Bratton needs to go, he didn’t answer.
Bill Perry, a White 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and member of Veterans for Peace who came from New Jersey said he came to the rally because, “These cops are out of control.”
Also modestly wandering among the protesters was syndicated radio show host Tom Joyner of the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” Joyner told EBONY: “It’s important to support causes like this. I’ll be going to the funeral too,” referring to Michael Brown’s funeral in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown like Eric Garner is among the spate of killings involving young Black men and police around the nation in the last few weeks.
On the ferry back from the Staten Island march to Manhattan, Jordan Boyer, a 22-year-old White student at UC Santa Cruz and an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance said she was at the march because, “I truly believe in this cause and I want to help make a change.”
Her companion Erin Panichkul, a 27-year-old Asian American student at Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego, said she thought the outcome of the march was “awareness and empowerment.
"And also solidarity. If you looked around the crowd there were people there of all ethnicities and races and ages, and it was friggin’ awesome to see that because I don’t think with a lot of different causes that happens.”