Over two hundred public defenders infuriated by the grand jury decisions to forego indictment of police officers implicated in the deaths of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown walked away from the jobs in order to stage a “die-in” protest last week. Similar to the string of national protests regarding these incidences, the die-in was done in an effort to draw attention to the series of recent deaths of unarmed black men — and one boy — at the hands of police.
Just before 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, scores of lawyers filed out of Brooklyn’s criminal court building unanimously chanting Garner’s chilling last words “I can’t breathe,” and carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” The lawyers say they organized the peaceful protest in order to underscore the frequency of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
“This is something, honestly, that we’ve been battling for decades in terms of what we see as the unequal treatment of our clients,” said Deborah Wright, president of the local chapter of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, which coordinated the march and protest.
Eric Garner was a black Staten Island resident who died in July shortly after being placed in a chokehold maneuver by officer Daniel Pantaleo, a maneuver which had been banned by the Staten Island Police Department. Garner was in the process of being arrested for peddling single cigarettes.
The grand jury’s declination to indict Pantaleo sparked national protest during a time in which many were already protesting a grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri.
As the lawyers marched, patrons waiting in the wrap-around line to see a judge began taking pictures and videos of the incident to post on social media. While many cheered and raised their hands in solidarity, other wondered if the protest would result in delays.
However, Wright said that every lawyer who participated in the demonstration did so in their free time, and those who had client appointments during the protest did not leave.
When the march reached Atlantic Avenue, the protesters laid down on the ground for same amount of time a bystander’s video shows Garner laying on the ground unresponsive: seven minutes. The group went silent for the final minute. Following the march and die-in, the lawyers disbanded and returned to work.
Several lawyers said they participated in the march and the die-in for their clients who feel justice system has repeatedly failed them.