NEW YORK (AP) — On the street where Eric Garner died after a police officer's chokehold, his stepfather stood stunned and hurt that the officer wouldn't face criminal charges.
"It's hard to believe. It don't make no sense," Benjamin Carr said. The justice system, he said, "is not worth a damn."
As news spread that a grand jury had declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, a few dozen people gathered near a makeshift memorial to Garner on the Staten Island site of his death, expressing angry — but peaceful — disbelief. In Manhattan, hundreds of protesters gathered in Times Square, Fifth Avenue and elsewhere.
His friends on Staten Island wondered about what the grand jurors had seen and heard, as opposed to a public that saw an officer's arm around Garner's neck and heard him pleading "I can't breathe!" on an amateur video. To some, it felt like a second racially tinged rebuke after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, declined to indict a white officer in the death of an unarmed black 18-year-old. Pantaleo, too, is white, and Garner was black.
"Ferguson, now us," said Jennie Chambers, who works near the strip of shops where Garner, 43, was a familiar figure.
To friends, he was a gentle presence and neighborhood peacemaker; to police, a man they'd repeatedly arrested on charges of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street. That was officers' reason for stopping him July 17, leading to the encounter that resulted in his death.
The medical examiner found a chokehold contributed to Garner's death. New York Police Department policy bans chokeholds, but Pantaleo's lawyer argued the officer used a different allowable maneuver. Pantaleo said in a statement that he never intended to harm anyone and felt very bad about Garner's death.
But to Enoch Karim Sr., a local church elder, the lack of an indictment was a troubling signal.
"It leaves us in fear for our lives. Because if it's legal to kill a black young man, then it sends a message to the police department that they can use deadly physical force on us," he said.
Supporters and friends of Garner chanted, "Hands up — don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe" and scattered cigarettes on the ground in homage. One man tossed a trash can in frustration, spurring Carr to urge Garner's supporters to avoid violence.
"I don't want it, and Eric wouldn't have wanted it," he said.
With Garner's photo emblazoned on her T-shirt, Jewel Miller stood quietly by the Staten Island memorial of flowers and candles. The 7-month-old daughter she had with Garner — a baby named Legacy — was asleep in her stroller.
"I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to tell her" someday, Miller said. "It's such an injustice."
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz