Thousands protest New York police 'chokehold' death

People march during rally against police violence on Aug 23, 2014 in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. -- PHOTO: AFP
People march during rally against police violence on Aug 23, 2014 in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Several thousand people demonstrated on New York's Staten Island Saturday to protest the death of a black man placed in a chokehold by police.

Eric Garner, 43, a father of six who was suspected of illegally selling cigarettes, was wrestled to the ground by several white police officers after resisting arrest on July 17.

An amateur video showed police subduing him with a chokehold. Garner, who was obese and asthmatic and repeatedly complained he could not breathe, lost consciousness and was pronounced dead of a heart attack after being transferred to hospital.

Classified as a homicide by the New York medical examiner's office, his death set off intense reactions and several protests in New York reminiscent of those in Ferguson, Missouri, over the August 9 police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

"I can't breathe" and "no justice, no peace," chanted the demonstrators, who converged on Staten Island, one of five New York City boroughs, by bus and ferry.

Some held banners saying "Black lives matter" while others demanded justice for both Garner and Brown as a large police presence looked on.

A few shops closed for the day, fearing the protest could flare up into violence, as was the case in Ferguson earlier this week.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who led the march, had repeatedly insisted that unrest would not be tolerated.

"We will prevail," the black reverend told the crowd as he was accompanied by Garner's widow and several of his children. "They will not cry alone." Erica Garner thanked the protesters for coming out.

"My father is very proud now," she said.

Demonstrators demanded that Daniel Pantaleo, the arresting police officer, be prosecuted, while others shouted "Hands up, don't shoot" - the signature slogan of Ferguson demonstrators.

Pantaleo was suspended after the incident.

Protesters, some with entire families in tow, peacefully filed from the place where Garner was pinned to the ground to the Staten Island prosecutor's office.

-'Right to feel safe'-

The Brown and Garner deaths have sparked debate about US police tactics, particularly when it comes to dealing with African Americans.

"I'm here for the world to see there is stuff happening here. We have police brutality here - bad cops who are not doing their job," Tricia Mackmenbourgh told AFP.

"This is always happening in our community. Everyone has the right to feel safe," added the mother of three sons who came from Brooklyn to attend the gathering.

"Ferguson, Staten Island, that's all tied in." A 63-year-old immigration lawyer who would only give her first name, Annie, said: "Police are too militarized in this country. There is too much artillery, artillery is never an answer, it is not a solution." A Pentagon program initially launched to help police during the War on Drugs has provided military surplus equipment to local law enforcement.

A New York prosecutor said Tuesday he would convene a grand jury, a civilian panel that hears testimony behind closed doors, to probe Garner's death.

Sharpton and Garner's family have called for a federal investigation into the incident.

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