A lot has happened in the weeks since the “We Will Not Go Back” march was announced in response to the homicide of Eric Garner by a plainclothes police officer in Staten Island. The police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off weeks of angry protests, a massive police suppression effort, and a resultant media circus. The Ferguson episode put America’s deeply ingrained patterns of racist police violence front and center in the popular consciousness in a way that Garner’s death had not, and yesterday’s rally on Staten Island only underscored the differences between how New York and Ferguson have responded to their calamities.

Yesterday’s rally, organized by former-mob-associate-turned-FBI-snitch Al Sharpton through his National Action Network, was backed by the participation of major unions, including the United Federation of Teachers and SEIU-1199, which branded the rally with a huge banner suspended over the stage. The unions helped swell the march numbers well into the thousands, but the participation of these institutional players, as well as that of current and former elected officials, also contributed to a tone so cautious and constrained it sometimes felt unclear what organizers were seeking to achieve.

"We are not anti-police,” 1199 President George Gresham told the crowd yesterday. “We know that fighting crime is not easy.” Pre-printed signs distributed by Gresham’s union read “Support NYPD; Stop Police Brutality.” At least some march participants felt the second half of this message was more appropriate to the circumstances than the first, but 1199’s anxiety at being perceived to be crosswise with the police was clearly shared by others on the microphone yesterday.

“Don’t act like we are here against police; we are for police,” Sharpton told a crowd gathered in anger over the police killing of a man suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. “But let me tell you something. You have got a bag of apples, and there’s a rotten apple in the bag. The only way to protect the good apples is to take the rotten apple out. If you don’t take the rotten apple out, it’s going to rot all the other apples.”

Former Governor David Patterson sounded the same note. “This is not a march against the police department,” he said. “Most times police departments do their jobs.” Patterson paid tribute to New Yorkers “who were shot down either from excessive force, bad training, or just bad apples.”

The preponderance of fruit metaphors notwithstanding, many speakers acknowledged that there might be something more systemic behind the NYPD’s recurrent killing of black New Yorkers. Many called for reforms—but whether because naming those reforms would again risk police ire or because they hadn’t been formulated yet, these reforms remained vague and unspecified.

But if the tentative and muddled messaging coming over the PA system was unlikely to move New York policy or build meaningfully on the momentum built in the streets of Ferguson, the human emotion on display among rank-and-file participants drawn to commemorate Garner’s death was profound.

“I’m here because I have a nephew who’s 14 years old now, and he could be the next Trayvon, Michael Brown, Eric Garner,” said Andrea Ashley, a 25-year-old from the Bronx. It’s not fair. This has got to change. Don’t shoot us because we’re black. We’re just as valuable to society.”

Kamau Butcher, a 25-year-old from Harlem, said he felt heartened by the recent focus on the NYPD’s race problems. “It seems like we’re moving toward a tipping point, in terms of mounting attention on the police,” he said. “You have to be optimistic about making change. Otherwise it doesn’t happen.”

“I’m just sick to my stomach,” said Megan Kapler, 24, a white Long Islander. “To turn a blind eye is just so fucked up right now. This is not about awareness, because the whole world is aware. This is about change.”

Derrek Harris, 51, of Stapleton in Staten Island, said the Garner episode has dropped Mayor de Blasio in his estimation. “I’m not in his corner right now, because I’m not seeing him out here” Harris said. “Having an African-American wife, he should be here.” Others were more forgiving of de Blasio. “We need to give him more time,” said Leah, a 50-year-old from Brooklyn. “He’s still cleaning up Bloomberg’s mess.”

De Blasio was hardly alone among elected officials in skipping the march. With a few exceptions, including a handful of City Council members and Congressmen Hakim Jeffries and Jose Serrano, most stayed away.

Zephyr Teachout, a candidate for governor, attended the rally—but only as a participant. She never took the stage: “You can’t be paying attention to what happened to Eric Garner without being horrified, just on a very human level,” she said. Teachout, who is challenging Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, noted that Cuomo has been conspicuously silent on Garner’s death and the issue of police violence. “One of the basic jobs of leadership is to be present, to listen, to speak,” she said. “On this issue, as in many others, Cuomo has been silent.”

Some of the signs in the crowd might have been hard for a politician to stand next to. Lia Brown, 29, of Staten Island, carried one comparing the NYPD to the Ku Klux Klan. “It’s still 1953 out here,” she said. “My son’s a black man, and I want to know that when he walks out the door, they’re not going to choke him like a dog,” Brown said she was skeptical that Garner’s family would get justice. “It’s good the medical examiner called it a homicide, but it’s still going to get covered up,” she said. “Why did they have to appoint a special grand jury? That’s just so they can control it.”

Alarik Brown, 38, travelled from Plainfield, New Jersey for the march because, he said, “It could have been me. It could have been my friends or family. I’ve never gotten in trouble in my life, but I’ve still looked down the barrel of a policeman’s gun.”

Brown was circumspect about the possibility of meaningful change in the relationship between African Americans and the police. “It’s an old problem,” he said. “There was a huge movement to stop lynching, and it just changed form. Power is not going to give up its place willingly. But that doesn’t mean you don’t still come out and push.”

Nick Pinto is a freelance writer living in New York. He previously wrote about the massive natural gas pipeline being built underneath the Rockaways, and the Ferguson protest march against police violence.