Thousands of people expressing grief, anger and hope for a better future marched through Staten Island on Saturday to protest the death of man in police custody last month after being put in a chokehold.
The protesters were led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and relatives of Eric Garner, who died July 17 after a New York Police Department officer took him to the ground with a banned tactic captured on a widely circulated video.
"We are not against police," Sharpton told the crowd. "Most police do their jobs. But those that break the law must be held accountable just like anybody else."
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The marchers, starting at the intersection where Garner was first confronted and placed under arrest, walked behind a banner that said: "We Will Not Go Back, March for Justice."
James O'Neill, chief of patrol with the NYPD, credited the march organizers with helping to keep things orderly.
Earlier, Sharpton urged about 100 marchers gathered at a Staten Island church to remain nonviolent or go home.
More than 2,500 people participated in the march, and police reported no arrests.
He also repeated his call for a federal takeover of the criminal probe into the death of the 43-year-old Garner, an asthmatic who was placed in a chokehold after police officers stopped him for selling loose cigarettes.
Activists have urged that criminal charges be brought against the officers involved.
"We're seeking justice," said Renee Charway, Garner's cousin. "He had six kids. He had a family. What happened? These kids are growing up with no father now? For a cigarette?"
Many in the crowd carried signs. Some said: "Police the NYPD" or "RIP Eric Garner." But the most popular signs were "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," echoing protests in Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown, and "I can't breathe," Garner's last words.
Garner's widow, Esaw, urged the crowd to march in peace toward justice.
She said she is too afraid to let her sons go outside and asked those at the rally to "get justice" for her husband.
Erica Garner said she felt her father was looking down on the gathering.
"My father is very proud right now," she said. "His voice is finally being heard."
The marchers walked alongside dozens of police officers in parade gear, including polo shirts and pants. There were also officers in formal blue uniforms, but none had riot gear.
The rally proceeded past the office of Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who announced this week his office would convene a grand jury to consider charges in Garner's death.
Donovan said his office made the decision after its review of findings from the medical examiner, who determined Garner died of neck compression from a chokehold and labeled his death a homicide. Garner's acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease were contributing factors, the medical examiner determined. Donovan declined to say what charges the grand jury may consider, or against whom they might be filed.
Sharpton has repeatedly called Garner's death — and the shooting death of the 18-year-old Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri — a "defining moment" for policing nationwide.
Garner was unarmed when he was stopped July 17and placed in a chokehold — an illegal police tactic. He could be heard screaming "I can't breathe!" as he was forced to the ground.
Soon after, he was declared dead. The city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and two NYPD officers have been reassigned during the investigation. Two paramedics and two EMTs were suspended without pay after allegedly failing to provide CPR in a timely manner.
So far, the U.S. Justice Department has signaled it likely will wait for the local probe to conclude before deciding whether to launch a formal civil rights investigation.
Saturday's half-mile-long route wound through one of several New York City neighborhoods where residents have said they feel unfairly targeted by police for suspicion of crime and enforcement of low-level offenses.
The tone was different among some residents of Bay Ridge, where protesters gathered before heading to the march. There, some locals came out Saturday to voice their support for the police.
"You can't resist arrest; that's the bottom line," said Karen Fleming, who was sporting an NYPD hat and raising a sign proclaiming her support. "The police are here to do a job."
In addition to running the National Action Network, Al Sharpton is a talk show host on MSNBC, which is owned by WNBC's parent company, NBCUniversal.