By Tom Hays, Colleen Long
NEW YORK — A grand jury cleared a white police officer Wednesday in the videotaped choke hold death of an unarmed black man stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, triggering protests in the streets by hundreds of New Yorkers who likened the case to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, MO.
As the demonstrations mounted, Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that federal authorities would conduct a civil rights investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges, but unlike the chief prosecutor in the Ferguson case, he gave no details on how the panel arrived at its decision. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from reckless endangerment to murder.
Protesters gathered in Times Square and converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, “Black lives matter” and “Fellow white people, wake up.” And in the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief.
“I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said. “What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video?”
In his first public comments, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner’s family and hopes they accept his condolences.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said in the statement. “It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died. As protests gathered steam citywide, Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled an appearance at the tree lighting and met with Garner’s father and other community leaders. At a Staten Island church, he said “there’s a lot of pain and frustration in the room this evening,” but he called on protesters to remain peaceful.
“I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante,” the mayor said about his teenage son, who is half-black. “Life would never be the same for me after.”
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe!”
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground.