Protests in New York City over the decision by a grand jury not to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner descended into chaos Thursday night as protesters chanted a bewildering array of contradictory and often ungrammatical slogans.
While protest leaders were trying to organize chants of “I can’t breathe,” the words heard being said by Garner on video footage of the incident, some demonstrators on the fringes of the crowd were still using the chant of “No justice, no tree” taken up on Wednesday night as an angry mob tried to disrupt the official lighting ceremony for the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree.
As a result, people in the middle of the crowd became disoriented and began shouting “No tree, I can’t breathe,” “No justice, I can’t tree,” and even “Justice? No! Candy for me!”
The situation deteriorated when several busloads of protesters from Ferguson, Missouri arrived to show solidarity with the New York demonstrators. Unaware of the the facts of the Garner case, they proceeded to employ the chant of “Hands up, don’t shoot” which has become synonymous with protests over the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown.
“It was a complete mayhem,” said Maya Brooks, an 18-year-old trainee pet mortician from Brooklyn. “When people in the crowd heard the chants of the Ferguson guys, they started shouting ‘I can’t shoot,’ ‘Hands up, no tree’ and ‘Don’t justice, up the shoot.’”
Jamal Harris, a tree surgeon who had travelled to New York with the Ferguson contingent, was critical of the New York protesters. “They are just trying to rip off our idea of having a catchy slogan. If you can shout, ‘I can’t breathe’ then c’mon man, you are clearly not having trouble breathing,” he said.
“And anyway, their stupid slogan is just the actual words the guy was heard saying on the video, while our slogan is much more effective ‘cause it’s totally made up,” he added.
“Whoops. Did I say that out loud?” he asked.
Fistfights broke out as rival sections of the crowd tried to drown each other out. Some protest leaders tried to start a compromise chant of “Hands up, I can’t breathe” before a group of medical students argued that if one were to raise one’s hands, this would actually result in a natural opening of the upper airway, in addition to relieving the pressure of internal organs on the diaphragm, thus ironically making breathing easier.
One clearly angry black youth was heard dismissing the group of mostly white students as “F-ing pedants” before become involved in a shoving match with a young white woman who had apparently informed him that he was wearing his baseball cap back-to-front.
“It was horrible seeing scuffles break out at a violent protest,” said Lacy Corrigan, a middle-aged Manhattan resident who joined the protests in a desperate attempt to regain her lost youth. “There was this one group of white guys who were just shouting ‘Fish! Fish! Fish!’ over and over again. But I think they were jocks and they could have been mocking us.”
“Still,” she added, “it was exactly like being at a Nuremberg rally.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called late Thursday night for mandatory remedial protest training for organizers of demonstrations, with additional training strongly advised for those wishing to attend protests and chant or shout slogans.
Relatives of the late Mr. Garner, best known for starring in the hit 1970s TV show “The Rockford files,” were unavailable to comment on the protests.