STATEN ISLAND, NY: Thousands gathered in a peaceful march and rally on Saturday, August 23. Organized by the National Action Network, delegations of political and community activists, as well as many labor radicals, stood among them.
The demonstration was a call for justice in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed Staten Island man killed during a brutal encounter with police on July 17. Rally speakers and many demonstrators' placards cited the arresting officers' use of a "choke hold," echoing the official report of the NYC Medical Examiner. Chants heard during the event included the recurrent "Hands up-DON'T SHOOT!" and "I can't breathe!" Rallying nurses union members offered, "1-2-3-4, Do not put me on the floor! 5-6-7-8, We don't want to resuscitate!!"
But this was not an anti-police event. Rather, speakers made certain to clarify that the majority of officers do a very difficult job without incident in their career. Keynote speaker the Rev. Al Sharpton told the massive crowd that he is thankful to the police for stopping crime; but if a crime is committed by an officer, he or she needs to be subject to the same laws and penalties.
The huge crowd filled the streets leading to the intersection of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street, the site of Garner's death, before winding down to the mass rally near the local NYPD precinct. A jumbo-tron stood above the stage, reflecting the moving images at the podium, as a powerful public address system carried the message far.
Throngs cheered as speaker after speaker offered their support to Garner's family and to the vision of real social justice. Garner's mother, his widow, sister, and several of his young adult children were among the speakers addressing the crowd.
NYC's labor movement was represented with many unionists on the march, including 1199 SEIU, UFT, SEIU 32 B-J, TWU Local 100, and NYSNA among them. The presidents of 1199 and United Federation of Teachers, George Gresham and Michael Mulgrew respectively, made powerful speeches of solidarity. While Gresham's healthcare workers offered unqualified support for the union's activism, some members of Mulgrew's UFT publicly spoke out against the demonstration in the days preceding it. Controversy notwithstanding, Mulgrew's message couldn't be clearer: "We are here to teach."
In recent years, progressive unions are more and more taking bold public stands in the movement to engage in social change well beyond the negotiation table or grievance hearing room. That was the notice going out from the national AFL-CIO Convention a year ago in Los Angeles.
A swath of community and social service organizations were also present in addition to various religious leaders.
"Look around you," said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, another of the afternoon's speakers. "The people in this crowd should have this amazing view: It's a sea of people of every culture and heritage coming together for change."
Though the call concerned Eric Garner's killing, the event also served as a platform for other unresolved police incidents resulting in the death of African-American men across the city and the country. Sharpton compared this march and rally to those held in Brooklyn a quarter-century ago, where area locals taunted the marchers with racial epithets.
"Today, however, we marched together and stand here united now, twenty-five years later, Black, white, Latino and Asian," Rev. Sharpton said. "We will not go back!"
John Pietaro is a musician, writer and cultural organizer in New York City. By day he works in the labor movement. His website is www.DissidentArts.com
Photo: At the Staten Island rally. John Pietaro/PW