Staten Island & Ferguson: Considering the Responses

December 6, 2014

Students consider a range of responses to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. 

To the teacher:  

On December 3, 2014, a Staten Island, NY, grand jury decided not to file criminal charges against white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July chokehold death of Eric Garner. The decision came just over a week after a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict a another white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, MO, in August.

After the Staten Island grand jury’s decision, thousands of people spilled into the streets in New York City and across the nation. Fueled by anger and frustration, these demonstrations are part of a larger movement to challenge a pattern of police aggression against young men of color and to change a system that leaves such behavior unchallenged.

In this activity students discuss a variety of reactions to the two grand jury decisions from authorities, Michael Brown' s family, protesters and others. The statements address issues including: Are protests needed? If so, what kind of protests? Are reforms needed?  If so, what kind of reforms? 

Before you begin, consider these guidelines for discussing controversial issues in the classroom.




Read the following quote from a press conference by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio the morning after the Staten Island grand jury decision:

"It’s a very emotional day for our city. It’s a very painful day for so many New Yorkers. That is the core reality. So many people in this city are feeling pain right now. And we’re grieving, again."

Next, ask students:

  • What the Mayor is referring to?  Why was it an emotional day for the city?
  • What do you know about what happened to Eric Garner this summer?
  • What do you know about the grand jury decision in the case? 
  • What other grand jury decision was announced just over a week earlier, in another part of the country? 
  • What do you know about how people have responded to the grand jury decision(s)? 

Summarize and explain the following:
Eric Garner case in Staten Island, NY

  • On July 17, 2014, a 43-year old African-American man, Eric Garner, died after officers’ attempts to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. According to the medical examiner’s report, Garner died from the chokehold officer Daniel Pantaleo applied and the compression of his chest by the other officers who were part of the arrest.
  • The encounter was captured on videos that have been seen around the world. Garner could be heard repeating "I can’t breathe," in the final moments before his death.
  • The case then went before a grand jury. A grand jury (called "grand" because it usually has more than 12 members) is a panel of citizens convened by a government prosecutor to decide if there is enough evidence to indict someone who is suspected of a crime - that is, to charge the person with a crime and bring them to trial.  To indict someone, the jury must establish that there is "probable cause" to believe that the person has committed a crime. About half of U.S. states do not use grand juries.
  • The Staten Island grand jury deliberated for less than a day before deciding that there was not enough evidence to go forward with charges against Daniel Pantaleo. 

Michael Brown case in Ferguson, MO

  • Just over a week before the Garner decision, a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict a another white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, MO, in August.
  • Unlike in Staten Island, there was no video of Michael Brown’s confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. The grand jury heard disparate accounts of what happened.  Officer Wilson testified that Brown had struggled for his gun and was charging at him when the officer opened fire. Others testified that Mr. Brown was surrendering, with his hands up when he was shot. 

In the emotional aftermath of these events, people have spilled into the streets of New York City and cities across the country, many chanting "hands up, don't shoot," "black lives matter," "no justice, no peace," and Garner’s last words, "I can’t breathe."  Protesters called for a variety of changes, ranging from an end to racial profiling and demilitarization of the police to wider calls for racial and social justice.   Authorities have responded with a series of press conferences, meetings and proposals. 
Explain that in the lesson that follows we’ll discuss some of these different responses by authorities, the family of Michael Brown, political commentators, protesters, and others.

'A National Moment of Grief'  

Invite a volunteer to read the following quote, also from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's press conference, or show a New York Times video clip that includes excerpts from de Blasio's press conference as well as reactions from other people to the Eric Garner chokehold death. Each has a series of questions below them to stimulate discussion.

Alternative 1: de Blasio Excerpt

Invite a volunteer to read the following quote, also from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's press conference:

"We’ve experienced one challenge after another in these last weeks. The events of Ferguson may have most sharply framed this discussion nationally. ...
This is now a national moment of grief, a national moment of pain ... and you’ve heard in so many places, people of all backgrounds, utter the same basic phrase ...: "black lives matter." ... It’s a phrase that should never have to be said - it should be self-evident. But our history, sadly, requires us to say that black lives matter. Because, as I said the other day, we’re not just dealing with a problem in 2014, ... we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the crisis is.  And that is how fundamental the task at hand is, to turn from that history and to make a change that is profound and lasting....
Anyone who says to you this is a problem only felt by people of color or only pertinent to young people and this is what's going on here... It's all [of] our problem - and anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now. Anyone who cares about justice, that American value of justice, should understand it is a moment that change must happen."

Ask students to share:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Mayor de Blasio said in his press conference?
  • What does de Blasio think the problem is? 
  • Whose problem does he think it is?
  • What does he say about action? 

Alternative 2: Video

You might also consider showing students this 4-minute  New York Times video, an assemblage of clips that includes excerpts from Mayor de Blasio’s speech, Eric Garner's arrest, Garner's family's response, and footage of protests.

Discuss the video, asking students: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this clip?
  • How are people in this video responding to the grand jury decision?
  • What reactions do you have to the protests depicted in the video? 
  • What does the mayor say about "black lives"?  What do you think about that?

What is the problem? What do we do about it?

Ask a different volunteer to read each of the quotes below, which represent a range of responses to events in Ferguson and Staten Island.  If you don’t have time to discuss all the quotes, select several.
Discuss the questions below each quote.  For each quote, chart students’ responses, listing both the problems described in each quote and the suggestions for change. 
1. Michael Brown’s family
The family of Michael Brown, of Ferguson, MO, released a statement moments after the grand jury decision was announced, which said: 

"We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions.
While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.
Join us in our campaigns to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.
We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference."

Ask students:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Michael Brown’s family shared?
  • What do you think Brown’s family thinks the problem is?
  • What actions are they suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

2.   Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president

 Adams is a retired New York Police Department captain and the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. 

"In order to finally bring this darkness into the light of day, our nation must address the foundation of this crisis. That starts with acknowledging that the training taught in police academies across the country is not being applied in communities of color. After six months in the police academy, that instruction is effectively wiped out by six days of being taught by veteran cops on the streets...

Hours after coming out of the police academy, I was told something as a new rookie officer: You’d rather be tried by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers... One of my white fellow officers once told me that if he saw a white individual with a gun, he took extra care for himself and the individual. When he saw a black individual with a gun, he took care only for himself.

These are the lessons to which I was exposed, and the reality of what policing communities of color has been, not just in New York City but across America. There is a legacy of inequity that did not just appear overnight, but was carved into the culture of law enforcement over decades.

There is reluctance on the part of police leadership, which has long believed in the nightstick and quick-trigger-finger justice, to effectively deal with officers who have documented and substantiated records of abuse. These individuals need to be removed from the force. That is an essential component of the larger response we must have to address this history of abuse."

Ask students: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Adams said?
  • What does Adams say the problem is?
  • What action is he suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

3.  Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review Institute

McCarthy is a  policy fellow at the National Review Institute, a conservative thinktank.

"I don’t think race had anything to do with what happened between Eric Garner and the police. I intend to keep an open mind until we learn all the evidence the grand jury relied on. And I continue to believe the NYPD is the best police force there is.
But I also know, as good cops know, that there is a difference between resisting arrest by not cooperating, as Garner was doing in Staten Island, and resisting arrest by violent assaults and threats of harm, as Michael Brown did in Ferguson. Police deserve a very wide berth in responding to the latter, but less of one with the former. I thus cannot in good conscience say there was insufficient probable cause to indict Officer Pantaleo for involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide." 

Ask students:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what McCarthy’s statement?
  • What does McCarthy think the problem is?
  • What actions does he suggest to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

4. Community Organizer Alysia Aguilera
Aguilera, an activist from the group Vocal New York, told National Public Radio after the grand jury decision in the Garner case: 

Marching and traffic shutdowns are making a statement and letting people vent, but ... it is also important to be strategic about targeting elected officials with specific initiatives for change. Spontaneous protest is exciting, but it's not always the most strategic move.... So I think if we can couple the two together, then we'll have a better approach to the change we want. We want to be out in the streets, but we want to be at the table to reform NYPD policies as well."  

Ask students:  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Alysia Aguilera said?
  • What does Aguilera think the problem is?
  • What action is she suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

5.  High School Senior Charlie Sosnick
Sosnick made the following statement after organizing a protest by students at New Canaan, CT,  High School against the Garner decision. The students protested outside the town’s police station. 

"We're not saying that the town police did anything wrong, we're saying, though, that there's a pattern of police brutality that isn't answered for, and racism in police officers," Sosnick, who organized the protest, told reporters outside the police station.
That's what we're protesting on a national level... No one can deny that there's a pattern of institutionalized brutality and racism in this country's police forces," he added. "And we, as young people, and the people that are going to grow up in America where police officers can kill anyone of us without retribution, we're not going to stand for it."

Ask students:  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Sosnick said?
  • What does Sosnick say the problem is?
  • What action is he suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

6. Rabbi Susan Talve
Rabbi Susan Talve of the Central Reform Congregation Clergy in St. Louis, discussed the role of the clergy in Ferguson. 

Clergy ... were on the front lines [of the protests in Ferguson] "since the beginning, because there’s a call for certain things to change: profiling and provoking, not just by the police, but also by a racist society," said Talve. "There was one night in the summer where we just knelt down between the protesters and the police. We just knelt down and prayed. It was really quite touching that the young protesters came and put their hands on our shoulders and the police stood down."
The primary objective of religious leaders then and now, according to Talve, is to lift up the voices of the youth, who are driving the movement in Ferguson. "Our commitment is to all the people, but our faith traditions say we also need to lift up the voices of the most vulnerable, to lift up the voices of those who’ve been marginalized. Our job is to take the margins and move them to the center. Most of our religious traditions are based on that, making sure that we relieve suffering. And the suffering right now is with black and brown youth who are profiled and at risk for being shot ..." 

Ask students: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Rabbi Talve said?
  • What does she say the problem is?
  • What action is she suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

7.  Ferguson, MO, police commander Jerry Lohr
A New York Times article focused on Sergeant Jerry Lohr, one of the few police officers who never wore riot gear during the protests following the Ferguson grand jury decision. 

"Allowing people to talk on a one-on-one level does a lot as far as building bridges," ... "They may not agree with what I’m doing, but now they at least know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize that I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform....We have to bridge this gap," he continued. "It’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a long-term relationship, a long-term commitment, that both sides are going to have to make."
On Monday, Lieutenant Lohr helped stop, or at least delay, outbreaks of rioting....He was polite to the protesters. His strongest words were reserved for the reporters who stuck microphones at his face and crowded behind him. A protester, Alene Williams, told him she was offended by the presence of the military.

"You have to protect these buildings," she said. "You have to protect the citizens. But you also have to protect the people."

"I know," he said, "and I’m trying to do that."

The lieutenant’s cellphone rang. "Let me take this call," he told her. "Thank you."

As he walked away, Ms. Williams said of Lieutenant Lohr, "He all right. I give him a little credit, but he ain’t going to get too much, because he’s still the police."

Ask students:  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what Lieutenant Lohr said?
  • What does he say the problem is?
  • What action is he suggesting to address the problem?
  • What are your thoughts about this?

After all the quotes have been discussed, ask students to reflect on the range of reactions and proposals. Ask for volunteers to share:

  • What feelings or approaches most resonated with you?
  • Has our discussion affected your own thinking about how we should respond to events in Ferguson and Staten Island? How?



According to South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Ask students how they think this quote relates to today’s lesson.