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Protests Begin After Grand Jury Declines To Indict NYPD Officer


Many people made a frustrated observation about the death of Eric Garner. They're saying even when there's video of police killing a suspect, it makes no difference.


That observation is not quite true. The video left little public debate about what happened, certainly less than a case in Ferguson, Missouri.

GREENE: In New York, Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a hold around Eric Garner's neck. Garner later died. What remains up for debate is who's legally responsible.

INSKEEP: A grand jury did not indict Officer Pantaleo. Our coverage begins with Robert Lewis of member station WNYC.

ROBERT LEWIS, BYLINE: Just hours after the Staten Island district attorney announced the grand jury's decision, 100 protesters were already marching in Manhattan.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

LEWIS: Those were the last words of Eric Garner's life. They were captured in a grainy cell phone video that shows Pantaleo grabbing him around the neck and dragging him to the ground with a swarm of officers, all for a minor violation of tax law, A fact that Staten Island resident Linder Hampton says is baffling.

LINDER HAMPTON: The man's life was taken for misdemeanor action. For selling cigarettes - loose cigarettes - you're going to lose your life? Over that - come on. There had to have been a better way.

LEWIS: Hampton was one of a dozen or so protesters who showed up outside the courthouse shortly after the decision. A few blocks away on Bay Street, residents gathered at the site of Garner's death. The death came after years of tension between minorities and the city's police department. Gerald Banks says he thinks it'll be virtually impossible for the NYPD to regain the trust of the community.

GERALD BANKS: The CPR that they claim to give us, which is courtesy, respect and professionalism, it's the same CPR we needed to give Eric Garner when he was down and he needed oxygen.

LEWIS: The district attorney's office says state law prevents them from talking about what happened in the grand jury, although they've asked the court for permission to release some information. The police union issued a statement from Officer Pantaleo, who says he never meant to hurt Garner. Wednesday evening's protests were largely peaceful, although some tempers flared.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was doing everything peacefully, but it's gotten to the point where...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You've got to keep the peace.

LEWIS: At the site where Garner died, his stepfather urged a man to keep calm.

MAN: What's the future for me? What's the future for me?

LEWIS: As the night wore on, protesters managed to shut down part of the city's West Side Highway. Even before the decision, there were calls on social media for people to gather in Manhattan tonight. Reverend Al Sharpton and Garner's family called for peace and announced a national march in Washington, D.C., later this month.

REVEREND AL SHARPTON: This is going to be a winter that we are going to freeze out police brutality in this country. Eric Garner, Michael Brown - enough is enough.

LEWIS: A number of officials released statements of condolence. In a press conference, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said too many people live in fear of the police. It's a fear he understands. De Blasio's wife is black, and they have a teenage son.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: So I've had to worry over the years. Chirlane's had to worry. Was Dante safe each night?

LEWIS: The mayor says this is a national moment of pain after centuries of racism. And he assured people disappointed by the decision that the matter's not closed. Shortly after his speech, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that his office will open a civil rights investigation.


U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Now we've all seen the video of Mr. Garner's arrest. His death of course was a tragedy. All lives must be valued, all lives.

LEWIS: The Justice Department has opened a similar investigation in Ferguson, Missouri. For NPR News, I'm Robert Lewis in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.