Foley Square is a small park in lower Manhattan, close to City Hall and surrounded by court buildings. Once a site of the Occupy Wall Street protests, on Thursday night it served as a forum for thousands speaking out against police killings of unarmed black men.
The crowds were protesting a grand jury’s decision not to indict the white Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who, while attempting to arrest an unarmed black man, held him in a choke-hold. This technique, banned by the New York Police Department, eventually led to the death of the man, 43-year-old Eric Garner.
A widely-viewed video of the incident shows Garner, who was asthmatic, repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” These words became a powerful chant for those protesting in New York, and across the country.
The Staten Island grand jury’s decision mirrored another from last week, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri chose not indict Darren Wilson, the officer who earlier this year shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.
“It was the Mike Brown case that did it for me,” Javana Mundy, 28 told Quartz. All she kept thinking about, she said, was her 18-year-old brother. “I am standing up for my family and for anyone else who’s got to worry about losing someone because of something as ridiculous as the color of one’s skin.”
Around her, people were chanting “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” and “Hands Up ,Don’t Shoot,” referring to the events in Ferguson.
The crowd in Foley Square was one of the biggest in New York; there were other gatherings in Union Square, Times Square and Brooklyn. The protests blocked traffic in several parts of the city. The New York Times reported multiple arrests, especially in Times Square where police presence was heavy.
Despite the biting cold, the protest gathered a diverse group, from a boisterous contingent from the City University of New York, to a group of mothers with school-aged children wearing matching yellow hats to avoid losing them in the crowd.
Alavi Alavioon, 65, held a cardboard sign with a drawing of a bridge adorned with LED lights, as an encouragement to “build bridges.” Alavioon, who is Iranian, has been in the US over 35 years. “We all come to this country because of the freedom, and we see this unacceptable situation,” he told Quartz, attributing the death of Eric Garner to the lack of police training.
The mood at Foley Square was one of anger and sadness, with people carrying cardboard signs cut out to resemble chalk outlines of dead bodies, featuring names of those killed by the police.
But some saw the demonstration as a sign of hope—albeit small. “This is a start,” said Alvin Paul Hawkins, 57. The police needs sensitivity training to understand the communities they come into, he said. “Change is going to come, but it’s going to take a long time.”