Protests in New York after officer escapes choking charge

Mariano Andrade

New York (AFP) - New York mayor Bill de Blasio appealed for calm Thursday after a night of protests over a grand jury's decision not to charge a white police officer in the choking death of a black man.

Police said 83 people were arrested overnight, most for disorderly conduct, after protesters converged on Rockefeller Center and the city's iconic Times Square chanting: "No justice, no peace."

Another demonstration has been called for Thursday outside the headquarters of the New York Police Department, and the city's liberal mayor called on protesters to keep them peaceful.

"Demonstrations and free speech are valuable contributions to debate, but violence and disorder are not only wrong -- they are counterproductive," he said.

Wednesday's grand jury decision over Eric Garner's death came just days after a similar decision in Ferguson, Missouri sparked riots.

The St Louis suburb had been the scene of protests and racial tensions since unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot to death August 9 by a white police officer.

In New York, police were deployed in force after the decision in the Garner case came down. There were angry scenes as thousands took to the streets, but no major violence.

A series of protests converged into a large march down Broadway and eventually into Times Square, where demonstrators mixed with hundreds of tourists and reporters.

Garner's death in July is one of a string of recent racially-charged incidents in which white police officers have been accused of using unreasonable force or being too quick to fire at black suspects.

Coupled with the death of a 12-year-old black boy who was gunned down by an Ohio police officer, they have reignited debate about relations between law enforcement and African Americans.


- 'An American problem' -


An amateur video of the New York arrest shows Garner, a heavy-set man who suffered from asthma and had six children, gasping "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" as police officers held him to the ground.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the US Justice Department will launch a federal civil rights investigation into the death.

New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo could still face federal charges. He applied the chokehold on Garner during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes in the New York borough of Staten Island.

Protesters in Times Square waved signs reading "Black lives matter" and "Respect human lives."

"The police has impunity. They can run away whatever they do," New York demonstrator Susan Schneider told AFP.

"And when you see them on the streets, how they are equipped, it's like war. It's worse than in the 60s. The racism is more strong now."

Garner's widow, Esaw Garner, said she rejected Pantaleo's apology.

"Hell, no," Garner said, in comments reported by The New York Times. "The time for remorse for the death of my husband was when he was yelling to breathe.

"My husband is six feet under and I'm looking for a way to feed my kids now."

In brief comments following the grand jury decision, Barack Obama -- America's first black president -- addressed the inherent mistrust many African Americans have of police.

"We're seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly," Obama said.

"In some cases, those may be misperceptions, but in some cases that's a reality, and it is incumbent upon all of us as Americans... that we recognize this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem."

A New York City medical examiner had ruled Garner's death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold used during the arrest.

- Wearable cameras for cops -

"Frustration is understandable," de Blasio said Thursday.

"Centuries of racism precede us. But working together, we can turn from that history and make a profound and lasting change in the culture of law enforcement and bring police and community closer together."

De Blasio, who is white and married to a black woman, has mixed-race children and spoke of his concerns about his own son.

"We've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police," he said.