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“We can’t breathe”

Thousands take to city streets

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
“We can’t breathe”

For the second week in a row, black America expressed shock and disbelief at a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed black man.

Staten Island resident Eric Garner was killed while being placed under arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, an event documented in a cell phone video clearly showing officer Daniel Pantaleo employing a choke hold — which New York police are barred by department regulations from using — while Garner utters his last words, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly until he lies motionless on a sidewalk.

In Boston Thursday, demonstrators chanted “I can’t breathe” while marching around the city’s tree-lighting ceremony where Mayor Martin Walsh kicked off the city’s holiday season, then massed in front of the State House, where state Senators held an annual holiday party before marching through the streets of Downtown Boston.

“I’m frustrated,” said Gerry McDonough, an attorney who came to the demonstration from Cambridge. “I’m tired of all this stuff that’s going on. Eric Ganer was the final straw.”

The grand jury’s refusal to indict Pantaleo came just two weeks after a grand jury took a pass on an indictment of Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson, who shot dead unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August. Since that August shooting, stories of unarmed, young black boys and men being gunned down by police have percolated into the national consciousness, fed by cellphone and security camera videos posted on social media sites and aired on the national news.

The deaths have spurred protesters to take to the streets, with many adopting the motto “black lives matter.”

“People are fed up now,” political activist Melvin Poindexter said during Thursday’s protest. “You want to believe in the judicial process. You think you’re a citizen of this country. But you see the justice system treating us as a different class of citizen. “People aren’t just going to stand by and watch existing-while-black be treated as a crime.”

Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians young and old joined in the protest. While some at the tree lighting, including Mayor Martin Walsh, bristled at the disruption of the holiday event, others joined in.

The demonstration was organized by activists on social media, with 7,600 people indicating that they had attended the event on the Enough is Enough, We Are the Ones, Justice for Eric Garner Facebook event page.

On Downtown streets the protesters chanted, “Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Shut this racist system down!” as they weaved through traffic, confronting police barricades at on ramps to Interstate 93 which they tried to block.

The protesters were deterred by a burgeoning contingent of Boston officers, state police, transit police and officers from the neighboring towns of Brookline and Quincy, who managed to stay ahead of the parade using bicycles and MBTA buses to muster officers to highway on ramps. But the demonstrators split into diffused groups. A contingent of protester managed to occupy an Interstate 90 off ramp near Kneeland Street, stopping traffic on the Mass. Pike for several minutes.

The protesters also succeeded in blocking intersections in Downtown, including the intersection of Congress and Court Streets, where they staged a die-in for nearly 20 minutes.

“I’m done. I’ve had enough of this sh–. No more,” said St. Louis native and Brandeis student Terrell Gilkey, stretching out on the cold asphalt in front of the old State House. “Mike Brown could have been me, considering I walk the same streets he did.”

From the Congress Street die-in, the protesters marched to City Hall Plaza, massing next to the JFK Building, before heading down to the Rose Kennedy Greenway where the abundance of highway onramps was matched by an abundance of police officers.

As the march headed toward the TD Garden, MBTA buses of police officers raced ahead to other highway onramps. Helicopters kept an eye on the march from above.

Boston Police reportedly arrested nine protesters during the demonstrations.