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Eric Garner's neighbors talk about justice, racism on Staten Island

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 8:33 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, center, warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, December 9, in Los Angeles. The team wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warm-ups in support of the family of Eric Garner. Since a grand jury declined to indict a New York police officer in the death of Garner, demonstrators across the country have taken to the streets to express their outrage. Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic, died in July after he was put in a chokehold by the officer, Daniel Pantaleo. Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, center, warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, December 9, in Los Angeles. The team wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warm-ups in support of the family of Eric Garner. Since a grand jury declined to indict a New York police officer in the death of Garner, demonstrators across the country have taken to the streets to express their outrage. Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic, died in July after he was put in a chokehold by the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
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Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tompkinsville is the Staten Island neighborhood where Eric Garner lived and died
  • His friends and neighbors share their thoughts with CNN
  • Garner's father wants people to honor his son; "No violence. We live here"

Staten Island, New York (CNN) -- On a chilly morning after thousands took to the streets to protest yet another grand jury's refusal to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black man, tourists vied for spots on the Staten Island Ferry to photograph the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

The ferry is the only way to get from lower Manhattan -- without a car, of course -- to the north shore of New York's least populated and whitest borough.

On the other side of the harbor, just blocks from the ferry terminal, is Tompkinsville, the neighborhood where Eric Garner lived and died.

Garner, 43, was a father of six and a grandfather. He died July 17 after police Officer Daniel Pantaleo tackled him to the ground in a department-banned chokehold during an arrest for selling cigarettes illegally.

Garner's death occurred weeks before Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death on August 9. A St. Louis County grand jury last week declined to indict Wilson, setting off days of unrest.

On the journey from Manhattan, where hordes of protesters stopped traffic on Wednesday and Thursday, to the Staten Island street where Garner was killed, people were asked three questions.

What do the deaths of Brown and Garner say about race in America? How would your life be different if you were of a different race or class? Do you believe justice is colorblind?

Enoch Karim and his daughter Takeya sat on the Staten Island-bound ferry, watching tourists snap photos of the Statue of Liberty. The United States is not all it's made out to be, Karim said. The grand jury decision to not indict Pantaleo was not unexpected.

"We've become desensitized to these murders," said Karim, whose son was friends with Garner, known in the neighborhood as "Big E." "It's business as usual in America."

"It's bad," his 14-year-old daughter said. "We die and they don't do anything about it."

Karim said his son and Garner sold "loosie" cigarettes to make a few dollars "instead of stealing." His son saw Garner die, he said.

"He said, 'Dad, I had to walk away. They killed Big E and I couldn't do anything about it.' "

Asked if life would be different if his race was different, Karim smiled. "It's called the privileged race," he said. "I'd probably be president."

Johannes Morken and his wife, May, on Wednesday stood near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. They watched hundreds of protesters on the streets. On Thursday, waiting for the ferry, the couple visiting from Norway read a front-page newspaper article about the protests.

"Both these two guys are black and they were killed for small crimes," said Johannes Morken. "Police use tough measures against unarmed black people. It looks like white policemen are trained to act like that."

"Racism is more of a problem than we hoped it would be," he added.

Garner's father, Ben Carr, has been holding an almost daily vigil near the makeshift shrine at the spot where his son died.

"I just want to make sure that people come here to honor and remember my son," he said. "No violence. We live here."

Rage was on display on the streets of New York, but there was none of the looting and violence seen in Ferguson.

To Twan Scholar, who knew Garner for 25 years, the sidewalk where his friend died is sacred ground. So many young black men are dying, he said.

"The government worries about all these other countries, but what about folks being killed by the police on our streets?" he asked.

Rodney Lee, who is Korean, has run Bay Beauty Supply on Bay Street for 15 years. As Pantaleo grabbed Garner in a chokehold, the officer and the man he took down nearly crashed through the window of Lee's shop.

A memorial of white flowers, handwritten notes and burning candles marks the spot on a sidewalk where Garner uttered his last words: "I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

"Why do we have to be scared of the cops?" Lee asked.

Katie McCarthy has owned Book Café on Bay Street for three decades. She looked down the street at the people gathered around Garner's memorial and lamented that America was far from guaranteeing "equal justice for all."

Outside a pharmacy on Victory Boulevard, Loretta Bevilacqua said the Garner case was not about race.

Though Staten Island is more than three-quarters white, the north shore is more diverse.

"It's sad what happened but most people here get along," she said.

The borough -- the only one not reachable by the city's subway system -- is home to many firefighters and police officers. On September 11, 2001, more than 250 Staten Islanders died when the World Trade Center towers fell.

"Justice is colorblind," Bevilacqua said. "A lot of people don't care about race. But there are always some people who are prejudiced."

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