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Thousands rally on Staten Island to protest police killing of unarmed black men

Thousands of people marched in Staten Island to

Thousands of people marched in Staten Island to protest the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Thousands of protesters, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, marched Saturday in Staten Island against police violence in response to the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was killed when an NYPD officer put him in a banned chokehold.

Marchers held a rally near the office of Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who is investigating the case and said he would convene a special grand jury to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

The crowd, stretching back for blocks, was hemmed in by police barricades. Police reported no arrests and no destruction of property in Saturday's demonstration.

Organizers said their goal was to pressure Donovan to charge the police officer who put Garner, suspected of peddling untaxed cigarettes, in a chokehold. The medical examiner determined that Garner died as a direct result of the chokehold, ruling the death a homicide.

"We're not here to cause violence!" Sharpton told the crowd. "We're here because violence was caused!"

Garner's widow, Esaw Garner, and former Gov. David A. Paterson also addressed the crowd from the stage.

"It's not white or black," Esaw Garner said. "They did wrong and they need to pay for doing wrong."

Paterson added, "We will get justice for Eric Garner and his wonderful family."

The mass demonstration comes after days of protest in Ferguson, Missouri, where residents have clashed with police since the Aug. 9 shooting death by a police officer of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Brown, like Garner, was black and unarmed; both officers are white.

Both protests in New York and Missouri decried what demonstrators said is a tendency across the nation for black males suspected in even minor offenses to have fatal encounters with police.

Protesters, many carrying signs such as "Hold Killer Cops Accountable," had gathered at Victory Boulevard and Bay Street in the Tompkinsville neighborhood for the half-mile "We Won't Go Back" march.

Many chanted "I can't breathe" -- words that Garner said as he was being subdued by several police officers -- and "Hands up, don't shoot," a phrase that has become a mantra against police violence in Ferguson.

Picketers riding "justice caravans" traveled from across the country to the borough. They marched from the street where Garner, 43, died on July 17 to Donovan's Stuyvesant Place office.

Though march organizers and the NYPD vowed that the demonstration and its policing would be peaceful, some neighborhood store owners, fearful of the unrest that unfurled in Ferguson, closed for the day.

Garner's and Brown's relatives, along with contingents from several labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers and SEIU 1199, attended the rally.

Hours before the rally, Sharpton spoke at Mt. Sinai United Christian Church and was joined by Garner's family.

"This is the beginning of a struggle, not the end," he said. "We're not having a fit, we're having a movement."

Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, added that "it just fills my heart with joy to let the world know that my son didn't die in vain. Those police might have thought my son was a nobody. But to me he was my world."

Others who attended, like Rose Augusta, 65, of Brooklyn, a retired nurse, felt the same.

"Justice has to prevail," she said. "All these young black men are getting killed or shot."

Solomon Palmer, 54, a cook from Newark, New Jersey, said that if the officers involved in the Garner and Brown cases are not convicted, rallies should continue.

"Hopefully justice comes out of it," Palmer said.

Paterson, speaking from the pulpit, rattled off the names of people killed by police in the past eight decades. "We march for all of them!" he said.

Among those past victims was Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999 by four white police officers. Diallo was unarmed when he was shot in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment.

"The struggle of justice, the journey of justice is long, but we will see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Diallo's mother, Kadiatou Diallo.

Sara Burke, 51, an economic policy analyst who lives near the chokehold site, brought her husband, Chris Rude, 67, a retired economist,and daughters Rosa Burke, 12, and Sadie Burke, 16.

The girls hoisted a homemade sign in the air, "WHITE NEIGHBORS FOR BLACK JUSTICE."

Sara Burke said, "We're neighbors. We live five minutes' walk away. This is an injustice to our neighbors."

Jason Hicks, 33, of Manhattan, a track worker for the MTA, had high hopes.

"I think this protest today will be different because of the national vibe that is happening in Ferguson," he said. "I hope that this protest will be somewhat different because people are more spirited. This will not just be a one-day rally."

Garner's death, caught on a bystander's cellphone camera, has flared racial tensions and frayed relationships between some rank-and-file NYPD officers and City Hall.

The labor union that represents officers, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, disputes the medical examiner's finding that a chokehold killed Garner and says that the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, wrapped his arm around Garner's neck only to place him under arrest.

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not attend the march. However, speaking after a Brooklyn Seventh Day Adventist church service, the mayor said he was in regular contact with police and other officials during the rally.

"I think that after any incident like this it's very important that people express their concerns and that there be a real dialogue about where we're going. And it is clear -- I know so many people who are involved . . . their message is clearly about bringing police and community together. Any attempt to paint it otherwise is inaccurate . . . this march is simply an expression of people's concerns and is part of the democratic process," de Blasio said.He declined to say whether he'd have attended had he not been mayor. In his past jobs, such as public advocate, he was a frequent participant in these kinds of protests.

"I don't like to think hypothetically," he said.

Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, chairwoman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, which oversees the NYPD, described the march as "a pivotal moment in the history of our nation."