NEW YORK — Thousands of people expressing grief, anger and hope for a better future marched peacefully through Staten Island today to protest the chokehold death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
Police reported no arrests after the afternoon rally and march that drew well over 2,500 people to the streets where Eric Garner was taken to the ground on July 17 by a New York Police Department officer using a prohibited martial arts maneuver.
“This is a Birmingham, Alabama, moment!” the Rev. Herbert Daughtry announced to about 100 demonstrators at a nearby Staten Island church before the march. He asked for anyone who had been harassed, humiliated or disrespected by police to stand. Almost everyone did.
The Rev. Al Sharpton told them to remain nonviolent or go home, a warning he repeated hours later.
He also repeated his call for a federal takeover of the criminal probe into the death of the 43-year-old Garner, an asthmatic father of six who was stopped for selling loose cigarettes.
Sharpton and former Gov. David Paterson then escorted Garner’s widow, Esaw, to a makeshift memorial of flowers, signs and candles set up where her husband was wrestled down and handcuffed. The widow urged a peaceful march but also asked participants to “get justice.”
Later, they led the procession that followed a banner: “We Will Not Go Back, March for Justice.”
The crowd included representatives of the United Federation of Teachers and members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout marched, too.
Diana Smith-Baker, a white Manhattan resident and Quaker, said it was important for people of all races and religions to bring attention to “the inequities toward black people and Hispanic people by the police department.”
James O’Neill, police chief of patrol, credited march organizers for the peaceful turnout.
Signs were plentiful. Most popular were “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which emerged during protests in Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, and “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words, documented in a widely seen video.
Protesters walked alongside dozens of police officers in parade gear, including polo shirts and pants. There were also officers in formal blue uniforms, but none had riot gear.
Natasha Martin, a black mother from Brooklyn, said she hoped the march “can get things to change. There is so much anger right now. There is so much injustice.”
Tamika Mapp, 38, a black Army veteran from Harlem, said she participated “because I don’t want my son to have to do this when he’s 38.”
The rally with people chanting “No justice, no peace” proceeded past the office of Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who this week sent the case to a grand jury, and finished at a stage set up next to the Staten Island Yankees minor league ballpark.
Sharpton told the crowd most police officers do their jobs but added: “We are here to deal with the rotten apples.”
Sharpton has repeatedly called Garner’s death — and the shooting death of Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri — a “defining moment” for policing nationwide.
Garner’s death was ruled a homicide. Two NYPD officers have been reassigned during the investigation.
So far, the U.S. Justice Department has signaled it likely will wait for the local probe to conclude before deciding whether to launch a formal civil rights investigation.
The march and rally also attracted the families of Amadou Diallo and Ramarley Graham, two other unarmed young men gunned down by New York police.
“I have met so many families,” said Kadiatou Diallo, whose son was struck as 41 bullets were fired by four white New York police officers in February 1999. “So much pain has happened.”
Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby said justice in Garner’s death was owed after three decades of marches against police brutality have resulted in “little justice for the victims of police violence.”
Staten Island resident William Coleman questioned how many white men have died in similar fashion.
“In my 58 years, I have never seen a black officer who killed a white person,” Coleman said. “They’ve never had to have a march like this.”