December 8, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and several prominent rabbis were among those arrested Dec. 4 in a civil-disobedience protest against the Staten Island grand-jury decision not to indict the police officer who asphyxiated Eric Garner last summer.
The group, organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, blocked traffic at West 96th Street and Broadway while reciting Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer. The about 25 people arrested included Rabbi Jill Jacobs, head of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the country’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue, who is Weingarten’s partner.
They received desk-appearance tickets and were released several hours later.
Weingarten carried a sign that read “Justice! Justice Shalt Thou Pursue!” “When a situation isn't just, we must speak out,” she said in a statement. “That's what Jewish leaders did last night. In the case of Eric Garner, it is hard to reconcile the evidence we see in the video and the coroner's report with the grand jury decision. More than this one case, though, we need to transform this nation so that every life is deeply respected and valued. I am proud I could stand with rabbis in making that statement last night.”
Her action was likely the most prominent union participation in the protests around the city after the grand jury’s decision was announced Dec. 3. A few people carried union signs in them—adjunct professors from the Professional Staff Congress, the New York State Nurses Association, and a contingent of Legal Aid lawyers from United Auto Workers Local 2325 at Foley Square Dec. 4. But the union presence was much smaller than it was at the march on Staten Island Aug. 23, five weeks after Garner was killed.
The August march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Alliance Network, was endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, and the 5,000 people it drew included substantial contingents from Local 1199 SEIU, SEIU Local 32BJ, and the Nurses Association. The UFT was sharply criticized for this by police unions such as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, but it and the other unions involved took pains to ensure that the signs they carried were not explicitly anti-police. “We know we are not anti-police,” Local 1199 president George Gresham said in his speech.
In contrast, the protests after the grand-jury decision were much more informally organized. The Manhattan and Brooklyn ones, in which groups of hundreds of people roved the streets blocking traffic, were predominantly young white people with no defining organizational affiliation. The much smaller Staten Island ones, vigils on the Tompkinsville block where Garner was killed and a Dec. 4 march to Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan’s office, were mainly organized by a coalition of Afro-American church groups and African-American immigrant organizations, such as those from the neighborhood’s Liberian community.