New York churches plan major focus on human rights after grand jury ruling
Written by Anthony Moujaes
December 4, 2014

Protesters make signs before rallying in New York City. Photo via Twitter.

After a New York grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer—whose chokehold led to the death of an unarmed black man—United Church of Christ congregations and ecumenical partners in New York City plan to make focusing on human rights a top priority in the future.

One of their hopes: to stem excessive use of force by police.

The latest case garnering attention involves the death of Eric Garner, the 43-year old African American man who stopped breathing while being arrested by New York City police officers in July.

"This is not a black issue. This is a human rights issue," said the Rev. David Gaewski, conference minister of the New York Conference of the UCC.

Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied late Wednesday night after the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo was announced. The ruling set off a wave of protests in the city's boroughs that shut down major highways, bridges and landmarks.

There are more rallies today, Dec. 4, including a gathering at 5:30 p.m. in Foley Square, that are expected to "look a lot like last night, with lots of public demonstrations," Gaewski said. Thus far, protests have remained peaceful.

In July, Pantaelo's chokehold lead to Garner's death, who was seen on camera repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe." The NYPD banned the use of chokeholds in 1993.

"The outpouring of energy in the streets last night and now tonight is a sign of the serious significant lament of people and our intention to make a difference here," said the Rev. Donna Schaper, pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.  "Now is Kairos.  Enough is enough.  And people know it is enough."

The New York Conference is working closely with Judson Memorial toward a meeting with the New York City police commissioner.

Gaewski is "putting a lot of hope into what may come out of a meeting like that. There's a sea change of culture that needs to take place."

"We were doing that before all this happened in New York, and then it kind of came home," Schaper  said.

"What does it take to indict a cop? You have a video, he's breaking regulations, breaking the law, and what are we going to do?  It's pretty outrageous," she added. "And how do you rebuild trust between the community and police in New York and Ferguson, and Cleveland?"

The Rev. Robert Chase, founder of Intersections International, said the event is a "kairos moment for Americans." Intersections International, a specialized ministry of the Collegiate Church, is a New York organization that promotes peace through dialogue via programming, advocacy, and educational and informational outreach.

"Heartbreaking realities from Ferguson, Mo., to New York's Staten Island painfully remind us how far we still need to go to reach the promised land, which in this country is the constitutional aspiration of a more perfect union," Chase said.

Gaewski joined the four national officers of the UCC in a statement expressing outrage over the grand jury decision, and calling for a national examination of our judicial system and other institutions "spiritually perverted by racism."

The New York Metro Association of the UCC is also hoping to make a public statement on the decision not to indict Pantaleo when it meets on Dec. 10.

"We're in this for the long-haul. This type of change doesn't happen overnight, and it will be in the spotlight," Gaewski said. "This must become our No. 1 issue."

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