All too aware of the unrest that has unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., over the last two weeks, Staten Island business owners and residents are bracing for a march Saturday that some fear could turn unruly. The march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, will protest the death of Eric Garner, who died more than a month ago after being restrained in a chokehold by an New York Police Department officer.
“It’s just a lot of people, a lot of uncertainty,” said Karl Reina, the owner of Karl’s Klipper, a restaurant along the march route. Reina decided to tell employees not to come in Saturday. “With current times in Missouri, anything could spark it,” he said.
Sharpton has repeatedly said the march will peaceful. Yet the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce issued a security alert warning businesses about potential disruptions Saturday.
“Although the march is considered peaceful, there is no guarantee that everyone in attendance will act sensibly. It is important that personal safety and general precautions be utilized,” said the letter issued to businesses.
Reina said enterprising locals have been going to businesses and offering to stand guard at their doors for a small fee.
The march is in no way anti-police, said Sharpton, in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. It seeks to hold accountable the “bad apples” in the police department who “create a climate of animosity and distrust.” It will bring marchers in “justice caravans” from New Jersey and Brooklyn to come to Staten Island, where Garner died, touching off renewed tensions between police and public.
“The message of Saturday’s rally is similar to the message I delivered earlier this week in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager’s death has brought frayed police-community relations to the forefront,” he wrote. “Is it unreasonable to ask that unarmed people not be killed?”
Estimates about attendance vary widely, from 3,000 to 15,000. The police department says it has arranged for adequate staffing at the event, though it would not disclose numbers about how many extra police may be on scene.
“The tension now compounded with what’s taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, has really elevated the level of stress that’s being put upon police,” said Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Assn., in an interview on The Ride Home with Pat Kiernan and Rita Cosby on WABC Radio. “In addition, its pretty much an anti-police culture that’s beginning to exist right now throughout the nation. It’s going to be a difficult day I think.”
In a separate interview on the same radio station, former New York Gov. David Paterson played down the tensions. Unlike Ferguson, he said, New York has many systems in place to address policing issues like this one, and African Americans are in prominent leadership positions in the city.
“Anybody who thinks the relations between the police and the community are as bad now as they were 50 years ago is really just hyping it,” he said.
Garner died July 17 as a police officer arrested him for selling untaxed cigarettes. A widely circulated video shows Garner, a 350-pound father of six, saying that he couldn't breathe as a police officer restrained him in a chokehold. Earlier this month, the medical examiner’s office ruled the death a homicide.
Sharpton and Garner’s family met Thursday with the U.S. attorney to discuss a potential federal intervention into further investigations of the incident.
The officer who performed the chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, was stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty. Another officer, Justin D’Amico, was also placed on desk duty. The Staten Island district attorney said earlier this week that he has determined that there is enough evidence regarding Garner’s death to move forward with grand jury proceedings.
“With a full appreciation that no person is above the law, nor beneath its protection, I assure the public that I am committed to conducting a fair, thorough, and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner's death, and that I will go wherever the evidence takes me, without fear or favor,” said Dist. Atty. Daniel M. Donovan Jr. in a statement.
Some legal observers have questioned how far Donovan will take the investigation because he was elected with help from police officer unions. Should minimal charges be brought, the federal government could open a civil rights investigation into the death.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has pledged an investigation into the NYPD’s training procedures, especially those regarding the use of force, after Garner’s death. But he has balked at claims that the NYPD’s “broken windows” policy, which seeks to crack down on small crimes or nuisances, should be revised.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also held an interfaith round table earlier this week to talk about issues of policing and the community. Sharpton attended that meeting, too, and again emphasized that there was a line between questioning police and attacking them.
“We must show the world that we are mature enough to allow its citizenry to question those in authority, but respect them at the same time,” he said.
Sharpton and Paterson will speak before the rally, which will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. New York’s city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also expected to attend.
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