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Protests after NYPD officer cleared in chokehold death

Kena Betancur, AFP | A protester confronts a police officer in New York on December 3

Thousands took to the streets of New York on Wednesday after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer over the chokehold killing of an unarmed black man in the city back in July.

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The decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo over the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York’s Staten Island drew immediate comparisons with a controversial ruling last week in Ferguson, Missouri, which saw white police officer Darren Wilson cleared over the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Garner, a father of six, had been accused of illegally selling cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk on July 17 when he was wrestled to the ground by police and put into a chokehold position, which is prohibited in New York. The police claimed he had resisted arrest. The episode, which was filmed by an onlooker, showed Garner pleading with the officers restraining him stating that he couldn’t breathe. The officers ignored him, and he suffered a cardiac arrest and died. The city's medical examiner previously ruled the death a homicide.

The onlooker posted the shocking video online, further fuelling outrage over his death.

Chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe”, thousands of protesters waved banners reading “Ferguson is everywhere” and “jail killer cops” as they marched towards Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, where thousands of holiday revellers had gathered to watch the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

Mass disruption in NYC

As the protesters swarmed towards the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, they were blocked by a heavy police presence.

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Tourists and Christmas shoppers hoping to watch the annual event found themselves trapped behind police barricades.

Strong words were exchanged between the protesters and holiday revellers as they surged towards the police line.

“You go and enjoy your Christmas tree, but Eric Garner was murdered,” FRANCE 24 witnessed one young woman shouting at a group of festively-dressed people trying to convince police to let them through.

Protesters repeatedly broke through the barricades, flooding one of New York’s busiest tourist hubs and blocking traffic from moving in either direction. A tense standoff between protesters and police saw crowds filing back towards another busy landmark, Times Square, and onto the West Side Highway, which was temporarily closed as protesters interrupted fast-moving traffic and swarmed onto the road.

Police made at least 30 arrests, according to New York Commissioner Bill Bratton at the largely peaceful demonstration.

US justice system ‘broken’

Fuelled by anger over the Ferguson ruling, which prompted thousands of New Yorkers take to the streets last week, protesters said they felt that the US criminal justice system was “broken” and “unashamedly racist”.

“I’m here because the whole system needs to be reformed,” protester Dave James told FRANCE 24. “I wasn’t surprised by today’s decision – and that’s the problem. This happens all too frequently.”

“I don’t think that any indictment would solve the problem of an inherently racist and violent police and criminal justice system,” another protester, Steven Calkins, said. “But the clear unwillingness not to even take that step is a statement of disrespect against a lot of people in this country… Many of whom are my neighbours.

“It’s important for those of us who care to support the people who are directly affected by it,” Calkins, who is white, told FRANCE 24.

In a statement released by the police union, Pantaleo expressed condolences to Garner's family.

"It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner," he said.

But at a news conference, Garner's widow Esaw Garner rejected Pantaleo's condolences.

"There's nothing that him or his prayers or anything else will make me feel any different. No I don't accept his apologies.”

“We are dealing with centuries of racism”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was supposed to be attending the Christmas tree ceremony alongside pop stars Mariah Carey and Cyndi Lauper, cancelled his appearance and headed to Staten Island to hold a press conference.

The grand jury decision poses the biggest challenge yet for De Blasio, who came into office in January promising to improve relations between black New Yorkers and the police department.

“I spent some time with Ben Garner, Eric's father, who is in unspeakable pain," the mayor told the press.

He said he thought of his own son, Dante, who is biracial.

"I couldn't help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante. Things would never be the same again,” he said. "We are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the crisis is.”

The Justice Department has stated that it will investigate the Garner case. It is already looking into the circumstances of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown’s death in Missouri.

“Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation,” US Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters in Washington. “In addition to performing our own investigative work, the department will conduct a complete review of the material gathered during the local investigation.”

President Barack Obama said the grand jury decision spoke to, "the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way".

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