The low drone of helicopters overhead vibrated through the narrow streets of lower Manhattan as people gathered to protest the ruling over the death of Eric Garner. The protestors arrived in clusters and the crowd grew exponentially: first a few ambling around the black marble fountain, then quickly hordes streaming into the square from all directions. Searchlights from the helicopters swept over Foley Square like a mechanical hummingbird’s beak probing a field of flowers.
One block away, a soft voice offered words like a benediction to a huddle of bowed heads. “For all those who were lost, for all those who were stolen,” intoned Christine Lee, vicar from All Angels Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as she led a small group of congregants in prayer before the protest. “For all those who were left behind, for all those who were not forgotten.”
She was reading the inscription from the African Burial Ground Memorial, the group’s rendezvous point. This message, she reflected, was a reminder that the problem our country is struggling with is not a new one. The burial ground, which was uncovered in 1991 after nearly two hundred years of being covered by construction developments in lower Manhattan, also promised that injustice would not lay undisturbed forever.
The death of 42-year-old Eric Garner from a police chokehold on July 17, 2014, caught on video and released online, provoked outrage from viewers and demands for better surveillance of police tactics. As they waited for the grand jury to rule on Officer Daniel Panteleo, the Communities United for Police Reform gathered partners for a protest to take place regardless of the ruling. Coinciding with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent protests, it was not just this singular death that needed to be addressed, they felt. Police tactics, in particular the policy of “broken windows” policing, need to be changed.
Wednesday, December 3 Prayer and Protest
The grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo on December 3. That evening, protesters flooded the streets of Manhattan.
Religious leaders turned out with their communities in a myriad of responses. Some were do-ers, feeling the call to be the hands that change the world. Others saw greater power in being intercessors. In the midst of the churning crowd, they mourned with the families of the victims and supported the mission of the crowd with prayer.
Jonathan Walton, prayer warrior
“Our approach should be prayerful rather than anger out of our disillusionment,” Jonathan Walton, the evangelical Christian NYC Urban Project Director of InterVarsity, cautioned. He arranged for groups of three or four people to be present in the protest marches in order to pray together. The point was not for their voices to be heard by other protesters so much as to invoke supernatural guidance for the movement.
Walton explained his approach in his blog:
“We stood in the middle of Times Square, warmed by the rush of subway trains passing underneath and prayed for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven. In the wake of another grand jury deciding not to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed and severely outnumbered black man, we are driven once again to anger, sadness, fear, pain, grief, confusion, hopelessness and crippling disillusionment. Or at least some of us are.
"‘No more racist police,’ I saw a young white woman shout in the face of a helmeted, dark-skinned police officer. She did not see him as a person but instead as a henchman of an unjust system. And he reached for his baton and one of his industrial size zip ties to restrain this problem if necessary. They saw one another not as sons or daughters with stories and families who love them dearly and just want to see them come home safely. They saw one another as combatants; and anger reduced them to less than human in one another's eyes.
"Tourists trying to get through the crowd to shop or watch a show proclaimed, "I'm not with them, let me through!" And the glowing billboards reminded everyone involved that there are better things to do than look at the injustice in ourselves or in the world. Watch a comedy show, get on a big bus tour, come to a strip club, go to the tree lighting ceremony (but only if you're not with them). To see the pain of so many as an inconvenience to those who were sight-seeing was salt in a festering wound. But to see the collective of those in pain not acknowledge the humanity in the southern and international tourists was equally stinging. In response to the dehumanization that me and so many other non-white communities experience, to see us dehumanize those in power is profoundly distressing. It is this reality that guided our prayers.”
Seeing their position as a voice for the voiceless and empowered by a direct connection to God, in his blog Walton encouraged his companions to have empathy for protestors and police officers alike:
“Jesus died for Pontius Pilate, the soldier that pierced His side and the mob that spit and hurled insults at our suffering savior. Romans 5:8 proclaims that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. So, if God's response to an unjust system, rampant abuse of power, and exploitation was radical, sacrificial love and grace - then Lord help us to do likewise.
"Would followers of Jesus, follow Jesus to the Cross so that we may share in the power of the resurrection. Would we pray for police and protesters alike. Would we enter into the pain and suffering of those who don't look, sound, act, or think like us. Would we consider for a moment what it might be like for Eric Garner's wife at Thanksgiving or the cold, empty bed she now finds her self in. Would we think about the wife who is praying for her husband as he puts on a badge and works overtime on the West Side Highway. God help us to pause for a moment and recognize the image of God in every person that we encounter, especially the powerless. And in doing so respond to the powerful with prayer, fasting, and obedient peacemaking worthy of the God who calls us His children. In Jesus' name, let it be so.”
Peter Heltzel, the freedom fighter
Some leaders entered the protests with a hands-on and feet marching approach.
“I arrived at Union Square at 4:45. There were about 100 people, which grew to 200 by 5 pm. We all got a chance to speak from a megaphone. I gave a word and got to know some folks. Then we marched. We marched up to Rockefeller Center where they were lighting the Christmas tree, but the cops cut us off. We chanted, "I can't breath," and "No Justice, No Peace.”
He shared with A Journey his diary of his group’s encounters with some of the police:
“At the beginning of the march there were two community policemen in the light blue jackets. I kept communicating with them as I was on the front of the line, including with an Officer Tuselli. They were helpful for about 10 minutes of the march but then we lost them. The impact cops were lot meaner and I witnessed a lot of police brutality throughout the night, including a cop on a motorcycle knocking down an African American guy named George who was carrying the banner with me.
"In Times Square our ranks grew to about 200 folks. We had a moment of silence, chanted for about 10 minutes blocking traffic, and then a guy told me he got a text that folks were headed to the Westside Highway, so we marched up toward 58th.
"We moved quickly. We saw the larger group ahead. When we got to the Westside, we walked into the middle of the road. Our yellow sign took up two lanes and we blocked traffic on the uptown side of the street. As more people from 58th St poured into our position, I saw some Union Students, including Wesley Morris and several of the folks that had taken the bus to Ferguson.
"Folks wanted to head downtown, so we started walking against traffic and some in the other lane which was open. I started to see fights between police and protesters. I pulled folks back from the cops, to try to keep moving, but soon we got to a police line where about 40 cops had lined up their motorcycles. About 300 people bottlenecked against that police line. Some wanted to storm the motorcycles, but no one did.
"Some of us took a side street. On 11th Ave and 48th St there was another activist line. The cops started throwing activists down and against cars, arresting them with the plastic type handcuffs and throwing them in squad cars. There were probably 30 cops on the corner and more running up 11th Ave from downtown. At 48th and 10th Ave there were two units of impact cops (8 per unit; with a total of 16 c-p-s on that corner). There were two helicopters shining lights down on us.
"I fell down once with another guy, but we were not hurt. I broke up a few fights. I put my hand on some African American guys’ shoulders when they were testifying. They teared up and could not go on. I was able to pray with people.
"Tonight I participated in the #MikeBrown Protest. I was glad I could be there as a clergy, as I was able to pray, preach, help people, advocate to cops, lead and be a non-anxious presence. Peace.”
Thursday, December 4 Coalescence of spiritual and profane forces in front of city hall
On Thursday night, the churches returned to prayer at Foley Square.
“The arc of the universe bends toward justice,” remarked Rev. Julie Johnson Staples from Riverside Church, who was present with an interfaith group. “That’s the hope I see here.” She noted that church leaders have always been a voice in Civil Rights movements, and sees such efforts as opportunities to overcome divisions of faiths and nonfaiths in order to work together.
“Let there be real structural change,” All Angels’ Lee pleaded. Joshua, an attendee of the evangelical Episcopalian church, thanked God for the cultural and ethnic diversity of the city and prayed that New York City would become a safe space.
Jeannie Rose Barksdale, a non-profit attorney who also heads All Angels' Our Place of Wellness Café, questioned what single change would make our society look like that. "I don't know but I think it would look like your kingdom," she prayed with tears streaming down her face. The group ended by saying the Lord's Prayer collectively.
They then headed down the block to Foley Square and City Hall. The center of action was filled with the din of of call-and-response chants
"Hands up," "Don't shoot!"
"What do we want?" "Justice!"
“When do we want it?” “Now!”
Barksdale slid into the call response with her on worship service chant. "Peace be with you," "And also with you!" she joked.
Just after 5 pm, the Muslim executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, Linda Sarsour, led an interfaith group from Worth Street up to the square. Upon joining the other faith groups, she grabbed my hand and promised, “Follow me! I won’t let you get arrested.” She wove her way through the crowd, greeting many other protesters as she passed by.
Three women from the Jewish congregation B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side joined Sarsour to show their outrage. “People I know have to question if their lives matter,” said one.
There was also a group of about twelve others from the Arab American Association, including five high school students who called Linda "Mama Bear".
A police officer marveled that “thousands upon thousands” of protesters had descended upon Foley Square. Early in the evening the officer estimated those were probably about seven to nine thousand people.
In an hour, a march began from Foley Square. Sarsour asked her group what they would like to do. She was bubbly with the options of either marching to the Holland Tunnel or staying at Foley Square and forming a human chain in front of the court houses.
She was admant: if they were going to march, she wanted to be at the front of it.
As they walked, one of the Muslim girls, Rabia Ahsin Tarar, a student of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, taught two others about the mosques which Malcolm X had been a part of up in Harlem. Those mosques, she said, teach the importance of political involvement for civil rights issues.
Tarar liked the 116th Street mosque because it makes the Quran and Muslim values relevant to America. “Most other mosques will talk about issues and say, "Do you know what's going on in Egypt?" she said, rolling her eyes.
She gestured firmly with open-faced hands to the ground they were walking on. “There’s enough happening here!”
The march of about three thousand people went across Chambers, turned up to Canal and over to the Holland Tunnel. At the intersection of Canal and Thompson Street protestors took to the pavement in a “die-in.” Traffic stopped for seven minutes as bodies lay in the street chanting, “I can’t breathe.”
For the next hour the march continued up the old Westside Highway. Cars and trucks honked their horns in solidarity as the crowd moved uptown. Drivers of taxis stuck their hands out their car windows to exchange high fives with passing protesters.
At West 11th Street a line of police cars brought the stream of people to a halt.
Walton had observed that modern protests, like the one at Zucotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, have the problem of lack of leadership and acted “like sheep without a shepherd." At the police line this observation became a reality for the current uproar.
Protestors at the very front of the line, most prominently activist and blogger Feminista Jones, insisted on standing their ground face-to-face with the police. They called for everyone to stand their ground, stick together. Those a few rows back, seeing that the march was obstructed, began chanting "Go around! Go around!" and they went off to the sides to clear the police barrier.
New protesters continued to trickle in from the crowd downtown and, seeing the obstruction, turned onto W 11th St to continue the march over to Sheridan Sq. Others who had already stopped joined them in an effort to keep moving. In their comings and goings, what began a couple hundred people at the intersection turned into less than 75 in the course of half an hour.
Over loudspeaker the police told the crowd to cease its disorderly conduct and vacate the street. When the remaining protesters refused to move, the police began putting plastic handcuffs. A handful of protesters were arrested, including Santa Cruz-based activist Carmen Perez. The crowd then quickly moved back to the sidewalks but continued to stand off with the police for another half hour.
Slowly, the remaining protesters left. Victory was not yet achieved. In a remnant of reassurance, they encouraged each other that at least the stance of the people is known. They hope other New Yorkers will eventually join the protest.
The morning after, Sarsour is dismayed at the lack of response from onlookers. She suggests that the fight is not over yet.
“You think slaves were freed, the end of segregation (well kind of), women getting the right to vote, the 9am - 5pm work schedule, and all the other struggles and movements that you reap the benefits of happened while people were sitting in the comfort of their homes or worrying about how your commute was to get home to watch your favorite show?” she posted the morning after the march on her Facebook page.
“I suggest you hit the books – you, my friend, don't know your history. What you are seeing now is nothing. Wake the hell up.”
"We Gotta Pray" by Alicia Keys. Video by Alicia Keys, courtesy of Alicia Keys.
Alicia Keys grew up in Hell's Kitchen, New York City.
For more coverage of faith groups on Day One see our:
Eric Garner chokehold decision! Religious leaders react. Updated Thurs, 11:28 am. Rev. A. R. Bernard: “NYC is in a lot of pain tonight, but we must not express that pain in violence.”
For our pathbreaking coverage of faith groups on the first day of responses to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri see:
Churches massively mobilize in Ferguson. NYC faith leaders asked A Journey about what are the churches doing in Ferguson, Missouri. Exclusive footage from morning church services.