WASHINGTON — American outrage over lack of police accountability in deadly encounters with black civilians gained new national momentum Thursday, as politicians of all stripes began joining the chorus for reform.
With fresh demonstrations gripping major U.S. cities over Wednesday’s the latest grand jury decision not to indict a New York cop in the lethal chokehold takedown of an unarmed man accused of selling black-market cigarettes was emerging as a political turning point in Washington.
Two of the most prominent aspirants to replace President Barack Obama in 2016 — Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul — spoke loudest, each expressing shock at the absence of criminal consequence in the videotaped death of Eric Garner of Staten Island in July.
“We have allowed our criminal justice system to get off balance,” Clinton, told reporters, as she endorsed federal reviews of police-involved death of black men in both Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
“And I personally hope that these tragedies give us an opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”
Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, said he would “welcome Hillary Clinton” in a drive for legislative reform. Paul said he was “horrified” by the videotaped death of Garner, and despite the absence of a criminal indictment he called the NYPD to fire officer Daniel Pantaleo to signal the chokehold is “unacceptable for a policeman and we can’t have this kind of individual on the force.”
Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” — echoed across the country again Thursday, on the streets of New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., where protesters blocked traffic near the White House, some chanting “We can’t breathe, you can’t breathe.”
The protests, which erupted last week following a Missouri grand jury’s decision to effectively exonerate Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson of criminal consequences after an August confrontation with unarmed teen Michael Brown, initially divided the nation.
But those divisions appeared to be melting away as attention shifts from the conflicting accounts of Brown’s death to far the more visceral — and digitally viewable — demise of Garner, whose alleged offence of selling individual cigarettes may constitute the lowest-level crime in the country.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner also weighed in on the Staten Island grand jury decision — and the absence of detail in how that decision came about — saying he would be open to congressional hearings on the matter.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions that Americans have and, frankly, I have,” Boehner told reporters. Later, via Twitter, Boehner called Garner’s death “a serious tragedy,” adding, “Americans deserve to know more about whether this situation was handled properly.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio answered the wave of protest Thursday vowing to implement significant retraining of the country’s largest police force.
“Fundamental questions are being asked and rightfully so,” de Blasio said of the NYPD’s relationship with the public.
“The way we go about policing has to change. People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.”
De Blasio also committed to working with the Obama administration, which launched a task force in the wake of the Ferguson decision, despite the president’s admission on Monday that there have been “commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens.”
Nationwide, the social media-fuelled demonstrations have proven largely organic, with a wide range of civil rights groups joined spontaneously by thousands in America’s major cities.
But the Rev. Al Sharpton, together with the National Urban League, the NAACP and 14 other groups, on Thursday announced plans to marshal the anger into a mass rally in Washington next weekend to demand the federal government intervene in prosecutions of police officers.
Calling the state-level grand jury system “broken,” Sharpton said the issue calls for a march on the scale of the historic marches that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“Even with a videotape you cannot seem to achieve a standard of probable cause,” said Sharpton, summing up the chokehold case and questioning whether a proliferation of mandatory police body-cameras will solve the issue.
“He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. If that is not probable cause, then I don’t know what probable cause has ever been established.”