Protesters blocked traffic on the West Side Highway, in midtown, and on the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges as part of a massive protest of a grand jury’s decision not to indict New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.
Crowds started gathering in Times Square and Union Square and near Rockefeller Center shortly after 5 p.m. Protesters on their way to Rockefeller Plaza — where they hoped to disrupt the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony — encountered police barricades stretching for at least four blocks on Fifth Avenue, between 52nd and 47th streets. Officers were routing foot traffic south and north, preventing access to Rockefeller Plaza and frustrating tourists and demonstrators alike.
Inside the bubble at Rockefeller Center, families outfitted in down jackets and chunky knit scarves waited quietly for the ceremony to begin. It did — exactly as planned, at 7 p.m. NBC Today Show personalities Matt Lauer, Natalie Morales, Al Roker, and Savannah Guthrie delivered a warm welcome to viewers at home, and a succession of B-list celebrities paraded out on the ice to sing. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane performed “It’s a Marshmallow World;” Darius Rucker, onetime frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish, sang “I Wonder What God Wants for Christmas.” No one mentioned Garner, or the protests, or the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio was not in attendance.
The overwhelmingly white crowd fell still during the commercial breaks, animating again only when the camera panned over it at the beginning of each new segment.
Just after 7, a significant contingent of marchers regrouped at Times Square, where the crowd blocked traffic for around 20 minutes. One driver stuck in the throng shrugged when asked if he was annoyed, laughing and replying, “I’m a New Yorker” with cheery resignation. Police mostly stood by, and within an hour the crowd had moved on. Some had gone home for the night, while others trudged on to what would become the most significant clash of the night.
By around 9 p.m., hundreds of protesters who had been pushed to Manhattan’s west side gathered on Twelfth Avenue, where they managed to shut down traffic on the West Side Highway.
While some protesters sat in the street and others stood defiantly, police began walking toward them with batons drawn. Then the walk became a trot. One woman was shoved against a car and police yelled that they’d be making arrests, prompting many protesters to run away.
Around 11:30 p.m. many protesters had gathered on the Brooklyn Bridge, and by early morning Thursday there were reports that more than 1,000 had gathered and shut down traffic on the lower level of the bridge as police made more arrests. Police had not yet released official arrest numbers as of 2:30 Thursday morning.
Tessa Stuart and Jon Campbell contributed to this report.