Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was illegally selling cigarettes on July 17 when police officers tackled him and put him in a chokehold. Police said he had been resisting arrest. The city's medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. The deadly encounter on Staten Island, New York City's smallest borough, was captured on video, which quickly spread over the Internet and fueled debate about how U.S. police use force, particularly against minorities.
Last week, a grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict a white police officer in another racially charged killing of a black man. The decision in that case sparked a spasm of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, with businesses burned and looted. The Justice Department is investigating whether Brown's civil rights were violated through excessive force.
On Wednesday, about two dozen demonstrators lay down in Grand Central Terminal's main hall in Midtown Manhattan in a silent protest as the evening rush hour began. In Times Square, about 200 people gathered, chanting "No indictment is denial. We want a public trial."
On Staten Island, near the site where Garner was apprehended, some demonstrators defiantly crushed cigarettes in front of reporters and passersby - a reference to the reason that police gave for approaching Garner in the first place.
President Obama, while not directly commenting on the case, said the grand jury decision spoke to "the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way. "We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of trust and strengthening of accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement," he said.
The district attorney for Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, announced the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold. "It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner," Pantaleo said in a statement released by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association union.
Benjamin Carr, the stepfather of Garner, said he was distraught over the verdict. "The justice system didn't do what it was supposed to do," he said at the site where Garner was apprehended by police and a makeshift memorial to his honor now stands. Tempers flared at the site as about a dozen protesters expressed their anger at the grand jury's decision. Daniel Skelton, a black 40-year-old banker, spoke loudly as he expressed his outrage steps away from Garner's memorial. "A black man's life just don't matter in this country," he said.
It is rare for either federal or state prosecutors to charge a U.S. police officer for excessive force, even when a death results. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have over decades ruled that police officers should have wide latitude to use violence to defend themselves and to take suspects into custody.
“There are a lot of cases where police officers don’t get indicted for what looks like extreme situations,” said Aaron Mysliwiec, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Many jurors and judges tend to believe police officers more than your average witness.”
In ruling Garner's death a homicide, the city medical examiner said police officers killed him by compressing his neck and chest. His health problems, including asthma and obesity, were contributing factors, the medical examiner said.
The video of Garner's arrest shows him arguing with police officers, saying, "Please leave me alone," and later, "Don't touch me," before a group of four officers tackled him to the ground. He then began to plead with them, saying repeatedly, "I can't breathe." Police said later that Garner had been resisting arrest.
Donovan said he had applied for a court order to authorize the release of "specific information in connection with the Garner grand jury investigation." The grand jury, like all in New York, had 23 members. At least 12 grand jurors must agree to bring an indictment.
Mayor De Blasio called for people to react peacefully to the grand jury decision, saying that is "only thing that has ever worked." The grand jury decision poses the biggest challenge for the mayor since coming into office in January.
Shortly before the grand jury announcement, the New York City police launched a pilot program to equip officers with body cameras. The video camera program was ordered by a federal court judge who ruled last year that police had unfairly stopped and frisked black and Latino New Yorkers. It aims to make officers more careful and accountable about using force, de Blasio told reporters, while reducing complaints and lawsuits.
Speaking late on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "Mr Garner's death is one of several recent incidents across our great country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement officers and the communities they are charged to serve and to protect ". He urged those who planned to demonstrate against the grand jury decision to do so peacefully, and said he was continuing a review of how to heal a "breakdown in trust" between law enforcement officers and communities.
Mr Pantaleo issued a statement in which he said it was never his "intention to harm anyone" and that he was praying for Garner and his family. Mobile phone video of the incident shot by a witness showed Garner verbally refusing to be handcuffed. Mr Pantaleo restrained him, holding him by the neck.
The city's medical examiner's office said Garner's death was caused by "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police". But it said other factors contributing to his death included asthma and heart disease. Mr Pantaleo's lawyer had argued he had used a move taught by the police department, not a chokehold which is banned under New York Police Department policy. Following Garner's death, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton ordered officers at the nation's largest police department to undergo retraining on restraint.
Even as an isolated incident, the decision of the grand jury in Staten Island not to indict the white NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo would have sparked anger. The fact that it came less than 10 days after a grand jury in Missouri decided that the white officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown should not face criminal charges has amplified the sense of racial injustice felt by those who believe the decision is inexplicable. In contrast to Ferguson, there is video evidence showing what happened in Staten Island. New York's medical examiner had already ruled that the death of Eric Garner was a homicide, and that the chokehold contributed to it.
In spite of the fact that America has a black president and a black attorney general, this case reinforces the widespread feeling in African-American communities that the criminal justice system is weighted against them, and that the law is not colour-blind.
After the grand jury decision President Obama said: "When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem, and it's my job as president to help solve it."