Sit-ins, die-ins, blockades in American cities not just about Eric Garner

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(CNN) — If the color were removed from the boundless images of protests on America’s streets over the last two days, they might be mistaken for black-and-white photos of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

Marchers with signs in Dallas, Boston, Chicago and Manhattan, screamed for justice. And not only for one African-American man, Eric Garner, who died after a white police officer wrestled him to the ground with a chokehold.

The grand jury decision to not prosecute Officer Daniel Pantaleo may have unleashed the dam burst of protests, but the anger of a multitude marching deep into the night has encompassed more than Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York.

The demand for change in how law enforcement deals with minorities has been broad. “It’s happening in every city, every town. It’s happening here in Pittsburgh,” Julia Johnson told CNN affiliate WPXI.

“The whole damn system is guilty as hell,” some signs glowing under street lights read. It treats some Americans less equally than others base on their race, protesters alleged.

“I’m out here because the system has failed us too many times,” Courtney Wicker, a New York protester, told CNN affiliate NY1. “It makes me feel like there’s no justice.”

‘Black lives matter’

“Racism kills,” read a sign held over the heads of a crowd. It summed up the sentiment in a filled New York City square framed by office high-rises speckled with lighted windows late Thursday.

Put the color back into the protest images from around the country, and it would be impossible to describe the diverse crowds flowing together through the streets in any racial terms — other than human race — with every hue of complexion that lives in America marching side by side.

But, together, they all stuck up for one: “Black lives matter” was the refrain of the chorus of protest slogans.

“The criminalization of black youth in America needs to end,” a young white marcher said. “It’s time that we say we’re fed up and this needs to change.”

The show of solidarity has touched Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, who is African-American. He was feeling down after the Staten Island grand jury declined to press charges.

“After the decision, I think some of us were so fallen,” he said, making a gesture of his chest caving in. “But then, when you see this diverse group of people sort of gathering together and saying this is fundamentally unfair and taking to the streets, it sort of reconfirms our faith in our society, in our values,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper late Thursday.

1960s style methods

One Asian-American protester felt inspired by the 1960s marches, but she believes that struggle shows change will take a long time.

“If you think about the civil rights movement, it took 10 years for anything to happen between the protests and the boycotts of the buses to the actual Civil Rights Act,” she said.

In the vein of their 1960’s predecessors, protesters in various cities held sit-ins, die-ins, preached through megaphones and chanted in unison.

In New York, dozens sat down in an intersection, blocking traffic. Others patiently waited as police almost gently put them in plastic handcuffs and walked them off the streets.

Under the ambient brightness of Times Square’s colossal kaleidoscope of video billboards, a crowd of young protesters lay down in Garner’s name on the concrete overnight Thursday.

But their symbolic deaths also commemorated other unarmed black men who have been killed.

Mock coffins, names written on them, lay interspersed with the stripes of crosswalks, as living protesters stretched out next to them in morbid solidarity.

A similar scene sprawled across a downtown St. Louis traffic island a night earlier, as a few dozen protesters played dead.

A police detective said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted officers to go a little easy on those obstructing streets, as many did.

Making gridlock

Protesters filed down avenues between lines of cars backed up for blocks.

They stopped traffic on the broad thoroughfare West Side Highway in Manhattan near 10th Street, CNN affiliate WABC reported. And they stranded drivers on Broadway. And they blocked the entrance to the Holland Tunnel leading to New Jersey.

The New York Police Department said at least 200 people were arrested Thursday night. The NYPD had been on the lookout for people obstructing traffic for extended periods.

Author and CNN commentator Michaela Angela Davis was marching in a mixed crowd of mostly white students chanting “black lives matter.”

The blocked streets didn’t bother her so much. It’s democracy, she said.

“I feel like we are seeing the American project at work. It is messy; it is difficult.”

Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Oakland

In Boston, a diverse crowd turned the annual downtown Christmas tree lighting into its protest late Thursday. “Black lives matter!” “We can’t breathe!” chanted men and women of all colors.

A white man pumped his fist in the air.

Protestors stopped a line of train service, and they blocked the Mass Pike and Interstate 93. State troopers went in to escort them out. Authorities detained several people, CNN affiliate WCVB reported.

In Chicago, a small group of protesters stood in tense stalemate with police, who tried to keep them from blocking a street.

Some were wearing the Guy Fawkes masks popular during Occupy Wall Street protests — eerily smiling, pale white plastic faces with curved, black pointy mustaches and pointy chin beards.

In Washington, on Wednesday night, protesters marched between glaring automotive headlights with their hands up.

Video from Dallas showed a few dozen protesters blocking an interstate late Thursday. They were quickly surrounded by squad cars, and police made arrests.

As an officer loaded a Latina woman into the back seat of the patrol car, demonstrators yelled at the top their lungs over blaring sirens, “Let her go! Let her go!”

Protesters took turns giving speeches through a bullhorn in Oakland, California, as others stood with their hands up across from police officers late Wednesday.

A night later, they marched to the Fruitvale rail station, where on New Year’s Day 2009, a white officer shot dead Oscar Grant, an unarmed black male, 22 years of age.

Peaceful protesters and police

Police appeared patient in New York, where some groups of officers facing the diverse crowds were equally diverse.

Crowds were peaceful on both nights.

Garner’s family has repeatedly demanded there be no violence. It seems only a handful didn’t listen.

Protestors at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal knocked down barricades and a few clashed with police overnight Thursday, who hauled off at least one person.

There have been no reports of widespread violence.

Riot gear was not in sight, nor were armored vehicles, tear gas nor assault rifles that appeared in scenes from the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in the wake of the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.

CNN’s Dana Ford and Greg Botelho and Melanie Whitney contributed to this report.

By Ben Brumfield

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