NEW YORK (CNS) — The day after a grand jury decided it would not indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders asked that any protests arising from the matter be peaceful.
“We all agree that these protests must remain peaceful, for the benefit of our communities, our children, and as an example to all who hold peace dear,” the Dec. 4 statement said.
“We know that demonstrations can be a constructive part of this process, when they call attention to essential concerns and mobilize individuals and government to act,” the religious leaders said. “Peaceful discourse of this nature will ensure the progress we all hope to achieve.”
A Staten Island police officer, Joseph Pantaleo, used his nightstick to place a chokehold July 17 on Garner, 44, who was unarmed. Chokeholds are banned by the New York Police Department.
The episode was captured with a smartphone and later posted on YouTube. In the video, Garner can be heard saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” A Staten Island grand jury did not indict Pantaleo for his actions in Garner’s death. The Dec. 3 release of the grand jury report spawned protests in New York and elsewhere.
The religious leaders’ statement did not comment directly on Garner’s death, the grand jury’s decision or the initial protests. “As we move forward we need to work to avoid destructive violence, build trust and create a more just city in which the dignity of each person as made in the image of God is respected and enhanced,” they said.
An AP story cited police union officials and the officer’s lawyer as saying that Pantaleo used “a legal takedown move” because Garner was resisting arrest. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide and the medical examiner found that a chokehold contributed to it.
Those protesting the grand jury’s decision argued race was a factor in Garner’s death because he was black and the officer is white.
A majority of the signers of the religious group’s statement were Catholic clergy, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn. Others were Auxiliary Bishop John J. O’Hara of New York; Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, the archdiocese’s director of Catholic Charities; Father James Massa, archdiocesan chancellor; Jesuit Father Gregory Chisolm, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in New York City; and Father Carlos Rodriguez, administrator of Holy Cross Parish in New York City.
Two rabbis also signed the statement, as did the president and executive director of the Council of Churches of the City of New York.
Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and the author of several books, said in a Dec. 4 Facebook posting, “You can admire police officers and still admit that they made a tragic mistake. You can support the justice system and still feel that justice has not been done. You can uphold the rule of law and still feel that the law is not being applied justly.”
Witnesses to Garner’s death said he had just broken up a fight on the street before the police confronted him for selling loose cigarettes, which is illegal in New York. If Garner had indeed been “a peacemaker, as Jesus called us to be, then it is an even more brutal tragedy,” Father Martin said.
“I’m not a police officer, so I don’t know what that life is like. I’m not an African-American, so I don’t know what that life is like either,” he added. “But when a man says, ‘I can’t breathe,’ you should let him breathe. And if he dies after saying it, then you should have let him breathe.”
The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund denounced the lack of an indictment in the case.
“This decision is extremely disappointing and personal to me because I grew up in Staten Island and am very familiar with the location where this incident occurred,” said a Dec. 3 statement by the fund’s president and director, Sherrilyn Ifill. “The grand jury’s decision calls into question whether justice is a reality or just an ideal in America, especially for African-American men who continue to be targeted by law enforcement.”
The Staten Island grand jury decision followed by one week a St. Louis grand jury that did not issue any indictments in the police shooting of a unarmed African-American 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The lack of an indictment cause the city to erupt once more in violence, with businesses looted and set afire, and protestors arrested and injured by police.