Black Lives Matter - New York City
By Mansura Khanam
This series covers a 10-day period of protests in New York City following the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. New Yorkers joined thousands around the country already protesting police brutality in Ferguson. Marches, "die-ins" and "shut downs" became norm.The refrain “Black Lives Matter” was a central part of every protest. Through it all, youth of every race, creed and culture were represented in large numbers putting a new face to an old civil rights issue.
On a brisk New York morning, under a washed out winter sky, a tall woman with curly brown hair and copper skin, held a hand-made sign that read, “My son’s life matters.” Pamela Ibezim, along with her 14-year old son, Kelechi, joined over 35,000 protestors streaming out of Washington Square Park as part of “Millions March NYC”. The Ibezims are originally from Nigeria, but Kelechi was born here. Kelechi wears relaxed jeans and a red hoodie that peeks out from under his winter coat. He has a young boy’s face but stands taller than his mother. I had been photographing the aftermath of the Eric Garner grand jury decision for over a week. I asked Pamela what motivated them to get up early and join the march. She answered, “I’m here with my son because I’m afraid of the police. I’m afraid for my son. I’m afraid he could one day be the victim of police brutality.”
As it turns out, it almost happened. Pamela owns a house in a cul-de-sac in a predominantly white neighborhood in Glen Ridge, NJ. Recently, a neighbor called the police to report that a suspicious looking black man was seen on the lawn. Pamela came downstairs to find a dozen police officers in her kitchen. “What if Kelechi had been taking out the garbage?” And that isn’t the only incident that is marked in her mind. Among only a handful of black students in his high school, her son was routinely bullied. “They called me racist names and surrounded me,” Kelechi said. “We told the principal but it kept happening. My mother got so scared that she sent me back to Nigeria to study. She thought I’d be safer there.”
In the days after a grand jury in Staten Island announced that they would not indict the officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, that officer Daniel Pantaleo would not stand trial despite a video showing Pantaleo wrapping his arms around the neck of 43-year old Eric Garner even as he yelled repeatedly, “I can’t breathe”. New York City surged in protest. For many, the decision was seen as part of a long and agonizing history where the decks were stacked and weighted against justice reinforcing what many in the black community already knew, and what Pamela and Kelechi Ibezim knew from their personal experience: in the eyes of the American justice system, black lives mattered less.
New Yorkers responded, tapping into an organizational infrastructure tested by Occupy Wall Street, a largely young crowd rallied around die-ins, shut downs, and marches. For a short period, in practically every borough, the chant “Black Lives Matter” could be heard mixed in with Christmas carols and the clamor of holiday shoppers. Protestors converged in Grand Central Station. They shouted through the hallways and at police officers and lay down silently in the center of the station for 4.5 minutes- representing the amount of hours Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by police, was left in the street in Ferguson, MI. Spontaneous shut downs of major arteries like the Brooklyn Bridge and the West Side Highway continued for weeks. Through it all, youth of every race, creed and culture put a new face to an old civil rights issue.