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We are in Foley square at 6pm, some of thousands gathered the day after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for murdering Eric Garner, for putting him in a chokehold that ended his life as Garner pled — 11 times that were caught on camera — “I can’t breathe.”
In the square, under the buzz and bright lights of police and media helicopters, we chant, “I can’t breathe” and “We can’t breathe.” In the last two years, the inscription of the black male body has shifted from hoods up for Trayvon Martin, the hood both cloaking and signifying black maleness; to Mike Brown and “hands up, don’t shoot,” the plea for human empathy with the violent officer; to Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe.”
The protest is a body of bodies: we assume the gestures, the symbols, the speech acts of the body that was destroyed. The protest repeats them to keep its spirit alive, to keep it circulating among a city that would forget it.
With Garner’s murder, the acts — die-ins, chants of “I can’t breathe” — have reached a new state of bodily urgency. We saw, in the stranglehold, the most intimate dehumanization. Pantaleo chose to continue his hold, had to feel that the neck he wrapped his arm around, the body he pressed down upon, were not as valuable as his own. And the institutions of the NYPD, the justice system, agreed with him. In those moments, Pantaleo’s arm was more than his arm, and Garner’s body less than a body.
We follow a group north on Lafayette and east on Houston, a mix of supportive honks and angry shouts sweep over us. We see reports of stoppages at the Staten Island Ferry and the West Side Highway. “Shut it down,” we chant. “No justice, no peace.” The demonstrations aim to disrupt the day-to-day functions of a state that cares little for life and a lot for efficiency, that sent several police officers to investigate Garner under the accusation of selling loose cigarettes on the street.
Around 9pm, we join another group at the vital intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn. A set of black coffins lead the march, each representing someone killed by the police. This group marches back across the Manhattan bridge – the police barricade us on either side as we go up. We hear reports of stoppages at Grand Central and arrests at Times Square, blockages on the entire West Side. If Eric Garner was not believed when he said “I can’t breathe,” maybe thousands of voices chanting the same might be.
Marching back to government center at Foley Square, we pass the Tombs: the NYPD holding building on Centre Street, the first step in our massive carceral system. The corollary to not indicting Pantaleo is the system’s eagerness to send scores of black and brown people to prison: another way of removing bodies from streets. One of the most intricate systems ever designed to keep bodies apart, to torture through isolation, to produce profit by the massive apparatus itself, is on full display steps away from where justice is supposed to be served on the halls of the courthouse, in the tower of City Hall.
And there at the Tombs, incarcerated people light up their rooms, pound the windows with the “hands up” stance, flicker their lights on and off in support. In their holding cells, they cannot know their neighbors are doing the same, but from below we see them as if they were choreographed, a part of the protest body.