With the grand jury expected to make their decision soon whether to indict the police officer accused of killing Eric Garner with a prohibited chokehold, police and politicians are ramping up the rhetoric about possible protests and actions. "The irony, what we're dealing with in NY, we have the NY community who live here, and then we have a lot of outside agitators who come in for these events," Police Commissioner Bratton told CBS, referring to the Sunset Park resident who sprayed blood on him during a recent protest as one such "professional agitator." You can watch the interview in full below.
Bratton also discussed sending police officers to Ferguson during recent weeks to keep a close eye on some of these "agitators," who police believe are from NYC: "We had teams of detectives there from our intelligence unit to...take a look at who was there," he said. "There were quite a few agitators that were there in Ferguson, a number of those arrested were from NY, so [we] kind of keep an eye on them. But also to see what new tactics might be employed by the agitators, the professional agitators, to gather what we could and ...try to prevent it [from happening here]."
He expanded even more on exactly who he thinks will cause problems here: "What worries me the most is not so much the organized events, but the disorganized, the spontaneous. Somebody who you've not prepared for, who just all of a sudden starts acting up in the neighborhood," he said. "The organizers of these demonstrations, their intent is to have orderly demonstrations, they don't want violence, they don't want vandalism. But it's the disorganized that would be our concern, or the professional agitators, that we have no shortage of here in New York." He added that the police have been tracking social media "very closely," and that police tactics have been adjusted to "their tactics."
Note that the "professional agitators" rhetoric is reminiscent of language used by George Wallace and other racist southern politicians while fighting desegregation. When Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor of North Carolina a few years ago, he and his backers (such as state GOP chairman Claude Pope) invoked just such language in what the NAACP later called "an effort to delegitimize the broad and diverse coalition of people speaking up on behalf of North Carolina’s poor, working poor and vulnerable."
Other pols echoed his sentiments at a community meeting with Bratton this week: "We are concerned about the professional agitators that have descended upon New York City who are a ferry ride or a trip away to this borough," said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. "Those are the individuals who have an agenda that is very different from the Garner family, than the clergy, than the community leaders, than the elected officials."
— Debi Rose (@CMDebiRose) December 1, 2014
"We expect nothing but a peaceful demonstration from Staten Islanders," said East Shore Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. "But there are certain agitators from outside the community who are looking for trouble."
Some local businesses on SI are already expecting the worst if Officer Daniel Pantaleo isn't indicted: "There's going to be problems for sure," Steve Ali, who owns Steve's Deli near Tompkinsville Park, told the News. "From what the people coming in and out of the store are saying, it sounds like it's going to be a big problem if they let the cop go." He added that he's planning to close his shop after the decision "and not take a chance."
Bratton pointed to the “We Will Not Go Back” march on Staten Island this summer, which had over 4,000 participants, as an example of the kind of peaceful protest they hope will happen after the grand jury decision. Garner's family wants it to be that way as well: "It’s not going to be a Ferguson-like protest because I think everybody knows my father wasn’t a violent man and they’re going to respect his memory by remaining peaceful,” Garner's son, Eric Snipes, told the News. "It’s not going to be like it was there."
A source told the News that he's "confident the grand jury will be given instructions Wednesday." To indict Pantaleo, 12 of the 23 jurors would have to vote yes on a particular charge; while the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, the Times reports murder charges are unlikely, but a lesser homicide charge (like second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide) are possible.
"When the decision comes, I expect, regardless of the decision, that there'll be some demonstrations," said District Attorney Daniel Donovan at a press conference yesterday. "It's great to be in America where people can voice their opinion and march. We do this for a living to protect that right, and so do the police officers."
Bratton also chose this tone-deaf metaphor yesterday while discussing possible protests: "We have the ability to have a level of tolerance, breathing room if you will, and we’ve been doing that for these last eight, nine days, and this is a department that has a lot of experience dealing with various forms of demonstrations, and we adjust our strategies and our tactics depending on circumstances of the moment," Bratton said. Garner struggled as Pantaleo put his arm around his neck, repeatedly telling officers in a video that was viewed by millions, "I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe."