Here's the Powerful Way That New York Remembered Eric Garner

July 21st 2015

Phillip Pantuso

The threat of rain did not stop hundreds of people from gathering on the lawn across from the federal courthouse in Brooklyn on Saturday, one year and one day after the death of Eric Garner, to demand that federal civil rights charges be filed in the case. The throng was demographically diverse—black, white, young, old, many representing labor unions and criminal justice non-profits. They came with signs and shirts bearing slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Respect Human Rights.” And they came angry and hopeful, in equal parts.

The rally, sponsored by the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, renewed calls for charges to be brought against Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who was videotaped putting Garner in a fatal chokehold. (In December, although a coroner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo.) It was also an occasion for solemn reflection on a year of sustained social justice activism ignited by Garner’s death and kept aflame by the subsequent deaths of other people of color, such as Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and others, at the hands of police officers across the country.

His voice thundering across the lawn and rebounding off the World War II memorial opposite the stage, Rev. Sharpton sounded a note of righteous indignation. He credited the Black Lives Matter protest movement with the implementation of body cameras in some municipal police departments, and with last week’s lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. He credited prosecutors for indicting Michael Slager, the officer who shot Walter Scott in South Carolina, before chastising the north for falling behind the south when it comes to leveling charges against police officers in the shooting deaths of unarmed black men.

The fight for justice was not nearly over, he said. He addressed people who doubt the conviction of the movement, Sharpton’s voice rose. “One year later we’re still here. You call us names but we’re still here. You tried to scandalize us but we’re still here. We’re not going anywhere.”

Among the speakers were New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who last week approved a $5.9 settlement between the city and the Garner family, and three members of the family—Garner’s 23-year-old daughter, Emerald; his widow, Esaw Garner; and his mother, Gwen Carr.

Emerald Garner—now an employee of the National Action Network, and the organizer of the rally—told the crowd that it was her “duty to share what my father taught me about the world.”

Garner's widow, Esaw Garner, was given a rousing introduction by Sharpton, and she sighed as she stepped to the microphone. “I can’t breathe,” she said, an echo of the last words her husband spoke. She told the gathering that she gets nervous sometimes, speaking in front of large crowds. “But soon as I see your faces, I get really, really strong,” she continued. “I feel like a bike with a kickstand. I feel like a flat balloon until I see you, and you inflate me. All you guys are my family now.”

Other speakers made plaintive and assertive requests. Sharpton called for the renaming of General Lee Avenue at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn; Tamika Mallory, Executive Director of National Action Network, called for the firing of Officer Pantaleo; and Bertha Lewis, a social justice activist, had a pointed message for new Attorney General Loretta Lynch: “If you can indict FIFA, you can bring an indictment in the Eric Garner case.”

The most moving portion of the rally came when the mothers of four other black men, all slain, joined Gwen Carr, Mr. Garner’s mother, on the stage. Sharpton introduced Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, and Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was killed in the Bronx in 2012. They were followed by Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in Oakland early on January 1, 2009, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida in 2012. Fulton urged the crowd to remain active and encouraged in the fight for reform. “Don’t wait until something happens to your child,” Fulton said.

Together, the five women formed the worst kind of club—a union of mothers who have had to bury their children. “We don’t want no more members,” Gwen Carr told the crowd. “The club is full.” By then, and for the first time all day, the clouds dissipated, and the sun beat down on the plaza. The fervency of the crowd didn’t quite match the pitched intensity of the marches and die-ins last summer in New York, but it had not exactly disappeared, either. If it wasn’t quite a promise, it felt hopeful.

It's been one year since Eric Garner's death. Have we moved fo...

It's been one year since Eric Garner's death. Have we moved forward?

Posted by ATTN: on Friday, July 17, 2015