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Over the last two weeks, New Yorkers have disrupted commuters at Grand Central Terminal, snarled traffic on the city’s streets and bridges, and occupied a handful of Manhattan’s major retail stores. The actions were all staged in the name of Eric Garner — the Staten Island man who was killed this summer as an NYPD officer deployed a chokehold while trying to arrest him. After the announcement on December 4 that a special grand jury was not going to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, protestors have been willing to stop traffic to get their point across
But just a ferry ride away in Staten Island, the response to Garner’s death has been eerily silent.
Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter, has been protesting on Staten Island’s North Shore on Bay Street, near the U.S. Federal Building, every Tuesday and Thursday for the past five months. But unlike in Manhattan where the protestors have recently numbered in the thousands, most Staten Islanders have either ignored her or simply stopped to briefly snap photos. “It’s very disappointing…it’s like it’s not real to them,” says Garner, 24, in front of a vigil that marks the place her father was wrestled to the ground while shouting the now iconic words, “I can’t breathe!”
“All over Manhattan, all over the world, people are protesting,” she says. “And this is where he died.”
— officialERICA GARNER (@es_snipes) December 11, 2014
She doesn’t blame the low turnout on New Yorkers from other boroughs, though: quite the opposite. “I love y’all,” she says, explaining that she appreciates the widespread demonstrations that have occurred throughout the city. “I know either tomorrow or later tonight someone is going to have a small protest or a big protest.
“And I need to bring attention to Staten Island,” she adds, “because they sat there and watched my father die in this very spot.”
The death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, and the lack of an indictment for the officer whose actions are believed to have killed him, has been a major flashpoint in a national debate about how police treat people of color in the United States.
But Erica Garner says that on Staten Island, that conversation is still lacking. So after months of demonstrating with her family in relative obscurity, on December 10 she put a call for more support, announcing on Twitter that she was staging another protest on December 11. She urged people to attend. Some activists responded with supportive tweets or posts on Facebook. Grace Dunham, sister of Lena and an actress/poet, also took to Twitter to encourage people to attend.
— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) December 10, 2014
But despite the attempts to rally support, only about 40 people attended the December 11 rally. It wasn’t a Manhattan crowd, but Garner says it was her biggest turnout yet. The group followed what has now become a familiar path for Garner: They marched along Bay Street near the ferry toward the scene of her father’s death. There, the group held a die-in and Erica lay in the exact place where her dad hit the ground.
— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) December 12, 2014
After the die-in, the mood was somehow cheerful, despite the somber occasion. Garner, was talking to onlookers and participants on the sidewalk and at one point suggested to her grandmother Gwenn Carr — Eric Garner’s mother — that she stay warm in their van. “I saw you get on the ground, to represent for your son,” she said, adjusting Carr’s hat affectionately. “You look cold!”
Carr, 65, tells the Voice she’s found the response from the borough frustrating.
“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “We can’t make them come out.”
Anngeannette Pinkston-Calise, who attends church with the Garner family, agrees. “Staten Island is totally different. They care, but they have somewhere to be, I guess,” she says. “They should be here.”
According to a Quinnipiac poll in November, Staten Island was the borough least likely to think that police were tougher on black people. Seventy-nine percent of Staten Islanders approve of the way police are doing their job, compared to 54 percent of New York City on average. And 48 percent of Staten Islanders disapprove of criminal charges for the police officer accused of killing Garner, compared to 25 percent throughout the city as a whole.
Erica Garner has been talking about her loss for months as her father’s story gets national media attention. But she says one question sticks out in her mind. “When do you think it’s going to stop?” she says. “Why didn’t the police stop from killing my father? We’re going to keep going until we get justice.”