NEW YORK – Thousands of New Yorkers moved by the tragic chokehold death of 43-year-old Staten Island father of six, Eric Garner, at the hands of NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo, and the failure of a grand jury to bring criminal charges against him, flocked to the streets for the second night in a row Thursday to call for change in a justice system they believe is rife with racial bias.
Standing in solidarity with similar protests across several U.S. cities, New Yorkers of all ages and races from a variety of religious, academic and civil rights organizations gathered with many others to demand change.
The Rev. John H. Vaughn, executive vice president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, who was among the protesters, said it was important for Christians to get involved in the movement.
"I think it's important," he said while standing at the intersection of Broadway and Chambers streets where protesters had halted traffic and motorists honked their horns in support as the spectacle of civil unrest unfolded.
"Christians are called to love everybody. Christians are called to stand for the people. Jesus is about the marginalized, Jesus was about the poor, Jesus was about the oppressed, Jesus was about those who are not always valued and this in particular (Eric Garner) is someone who was not valued. Jesus would be right here," said Vaughn.
Despite the freezing weather, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Foley Square, Lower Manhattan, as well as other parts of the city chanting slogans like Garner's now famous last words – "I can't breathe" – as NYPD officers looked on. In one touching moment this reporter witnessed a black city bus driver caught in traffic appear to repeatedly wipe tears from his eyes as protesters marched up Broadway.
They also lifted placards with various messages including several directed at the city's controversial broken windows policing policy. Based on the 1982 theory advanced by Professors George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, it argues that maintaining public order also helps prevent crime.
Critics of the policy, however, say it has led to overpolicing and mass incarceration and disproportionately targets poor, black and Hispanic people.
"My personal outrage at the lack of justice for young men of color on our streets [is what led me here today]," explained the Rev. Canon WM. Blake Rider of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Along with him in the crowd were about 25 other Episcopal priests and about 200 lay people in his group.
He charged that Christians need to be doing more in our communities in helping to advance racial justice and said he hoped the NYPD internal investigation, as well as one recently launched by the Department of Justice, will better account for Garner's loss of life.