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It was a night meant to celebrate the start of the Christmas season, but around midtown Manhattan, the mood was anything but festive. Protestors shouting "No justice, no peace, no racist police" overpowered the canned holiday music playing through loudspeakers in Times Square tonight. Hundreds of New Yorkers gathered here in response to a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for his role in the death of unarmed 43-year-old black man Eric Garner, which was caught on video on July 17.
Men and women of every race and age met on W. 42nd St. and 8th Avenue—one of several organized protests around New York City—to voice their anger and disappointment with today's announcement. While many of the men and women we spoke with were not surprised to learn that Pantaleo would not be indicted, their pain and frustration was still searing.
"We can't expect a system that wasn't created for us to work for us," said Timothy Duwhite, 24. "Even if he was to be convicted, it still wouldn't help us because it would appease us and make us feel like the system is still working and yet the prison industrial complex will continue to disenfranchise black men like me." Duwhite said he would like to abolish the prison and police systems completely, and compared modern-day police officers to bounty hunters who were hired to catch fugitive slaves. "Law enforcement was never created for us."
we need to reinforce that black and brown lives matter. They already know that white lives matter.
There were many young black men at the protests who echoed this sentiment, including Kamani, who said the news about Pantaleo didn't faze him at all. "It didn't shock me. It shouldn't take so long to make a decision about this. It was like they knew, and were kind of like, 'Let's wait to give them the answer.'" Regardless, Kamani felt that the outcome of the Eric Garner case should have been different from Mike Brown's death because it was caught on camera.
"I thought that [the video footage] would play a huge role in the cop being prosecuted, but I guess it didn't. All of it on camera, him saying, 'I can't breathe', him saying, 'Leave me alone, you're always bothering me,' it should have played a bigger role. That's why we are all here."
Both Duwhite and Kamani said that they feel like the police treat them as targets, but for Kamani, this situation transcends black and white. "I've been hashtagging #AllLivesMatter because it's an injustice of American society. It's just violence. Violence is so accepted. I do feel targeted as a black man, but I don't want it to be about race. I want it to be more. It's about human rights, not just black rights."
According to Florence Johnson, 59, who led several call-and-response chants in Times Square tonight, it is about race, and the Twitter feud between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter should be shut down. "It's black men that are being wasted and shot," she said. "We need to reinforce that black and brown lives matter. They already know that white lives matter."
"Mic check," someone yelled. "Mic check," the crowd responded. "On the count of three, let us observe a moment of silence in honor of Eric Garner and Mike Brown." The M.C. counted down to three, and complete silence washed over the crowd as everyone's hands went up in the air. The "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture has come to symbolize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
New protesters marching from downtown joined the group in Times Square. "To the tree!" they shouted. Shortly after, the entire group was mobilized, heading northeast toward Rockefeller Center where the annual Christmas Tree lighting was scheduled at 7 p.m. Earlier this afternoon, Mayor de Blasio announced that he had canceled his appearance at this year's tree lighting to visit Staten Island instead.
The M.C. counted down to three, and complete silence washed over the crowd as everyone's hands went up in the air.
On our way uptown, we spoke to Rafael Ramirez, a 20-year-old student at Columbia University who helped organize the recent boycott against Black Friday and recently started a group called M.O.V.E (Mobilizing Voices Everywhere). He looked completely at ease directing protestors marching up the street. Ramirez's approach to protesting is tactical.
"I think what's important to do is unify behind a vision and behind a strategic goal because what tends to happen is that we become reactive, and we react to every instance and every case as an isolated incident when in fact it's not," he said. "All these things are connected and need to be addressed collectively. It starts with organizing a strategy of action. If we're going to march here, we're going to march for this purpose, and then we're going to have a specific voice [...] We need to take care of the people there and make sure as few people as possible get arrested and make sure that we remain peaceful and together." Ramirez went back to directing protestors to the next location, but by the time we made it to 6th Ave. the police had blocked off the streets.
Although we were unable to make it to the tree, it was clear that the protests were gaining strong momentum all over the city, as more bodies were being mobilized. "We've spent a lot of time in this country enforcing a lot of individualism, which keeps people from working together in concert to fight against injustice," said Johnson. "What I see here is a large group of mostly young people who managed to do just that. What they're doing here right now is absolutely amazing."
Lauretta Charlton is an associate editor at Complex. Follow her on Twitter here.