NEW YORK — A grand jury cleared a white police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, triggering protests in the streets by hundreds of New Yorkers who likened the case to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
As the demonstrations mounted, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities would conduct a civil rights investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges, but unlike the chief prosecutor in the Ferguson case, he gave no details on how the panel arrived at its decision. The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from reckless endangerment to murder.
Protesters gathered in Times Square and converged on the heavily secured area around the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, “Black lives matter” and “Fellow white people, wake up.” And in the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up — don’t choke!”
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said the grand jury decision “just tore me up.”
“I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause,” she said. “What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”
In his first public comments, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner’s family and hopes they accept his condolences.
“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said in the statement. “It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled an appearance at the tree lighting and met with Garner’s father and other community leaders. At a Staten Island church, he said, “There’s a lot of pain and frustration in the room this evening,” but he called on protesters to remain peaceful.
“I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante,” the mayor said about his teenage son, who is half-black. “Life would never be the same for me after.”
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under New York Police Department policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe!”
Experts said that without knowing how prosecutors presented the case, it’s difficult to theorize how the grand jury reached its decision. To find Pantaleo criminally negligent, the panel would have had to determine he knew there was a “substantial risk” that Garner would have died.
Critics of the outcome in Ferguson — where a grand jury refused last week to indict a white police officer who shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown — complained that prosecutors there allowed the officer to give a self-serving account without challenging inconsistencies.
The Garner video “speaks for itself,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School. “It appears to show negligence. But if we learned anything from the Brown case, it’s the power of prosecutors to construct and manage a narrative in a way that can shape the outcome.”
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city’s five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters. The district attorney said he will seek to have information on the investigation released.
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner’s family agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner’s neck indicative of neck compressions.
Pantaleo was stripped of his gun and badge and will remain on desk duty pending an internal police investigation that could result in administrative charges.
As the grand jury decision drew near, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off the kind of violence seen in Ferguson, where arson and looting resulted in more than 100 arrests and the destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
In the hours after the decision, several dozen demonstrators at the site of Garner’s arrest scattered cigarettes on the ground in homage to him and lit candles.
“Cold-blooded murder!” said Jennie Chambers, who works nearby and saw Garner daily. “We saw it on TV. It’s on video. The whole world saw it. Ferguson, now us.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Jonathan Lemire, Deepti Hajela, Tom McElroy and Jake Pearson contributed to this report.