NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Tensions ran high on Friday as protest organizers steered a crowd of well over 100 people onto Route 18, the city's main artery, taking a historic stand against racism and the lack of accountability for police killings across the country.
The protest had the same beginning and ending points as one held two weeks earlier, but took a more circuitous route through much more of the city, including several stoppages of traffic.
City spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw confirmed there were "no arrests or incidents related to the protests," which started at the Douglass Student Center on George Street.
The protest march came on the heels of another larger gathering in New Brunswick, organized by the same group in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer who killed an unarmed African-American man in Missouri.
Just like in that case, an officer who killed an unarmed citizen was given the unusual opportunity to testify before the grand jury investigating him. Typically, defendants are not called to testify before grand juries, though it is left to the discretion of the prosecutor.
This time, the march was in honor of Eric Garner, an African-American man choked to death by New York City police this summer. A grand jury had decided three days earlier not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, or anyone else, in the the videotaped chokehold death.
A bystander had recorded the gang of police officers taking down and choking Garner, whose only crime was selling loose cigarettes. The killing received widespread media coverage and furthered the deep divide between police and civilians.
The campus-based protest started at 3:30pm, as Rutgers students and city residents alike gathered to protest a grand jury's decision.
Outside the student center, organizers fired up the crowd and practiced several chants with those who came out.
"Yes my words exist, but they are being drowned out by eulogies and funeral services," said one organizer. " They are being overwhelmed by the sounds of distraught screams of parents after they bury their legacies into the ground."
After a series of speeches, poems, and chants the protestors began to march down George Street.
Among the chants were the dying words of Eric Garner, "I can't breathe," which he repeated eleven times as he was being restrained by the NYPD.
Instead of continuing down the rest of George Street, the protestors turned on to Commercial Avenue, taking the street and marching onto Route 18. Police were surprised but prepared for the change.
In the midst of rush hour traffic, leaders took to the southbound lanes of the highway and slowed down incoming cars before inviting the others.
The reception was mixed, with a surprising number of cars honking in support, or drivers chanting along and giving positive gestures. Still, others were vocal about their opposition and proved hostile towards the protesters.
Besides the passionate youth that took to the street, there were a noticeable amount of confused faces, as many participants apparently did not expect the protest would shift in this direction.
CONTROVERSIAL TACTIC SHUTS DOWN HIGHWAY FOR FIRST TIME IN YEARS
The tactic, employed by the "People's Coalition Against Police Brutality" for the first time on Friday, December 5, has received mixed reviews.
"This is disgusting!" said one commenter on the New Brunswick Today Facebook page. "All these individuals should be arrested. Protesting becomes illegal when said protests restricts the freedom of movement to others."
"Unreal what does blocking highways to about the problem besides pissing everyday people off trying to get home???" reads another.
But the most popular comment on this particular thread, one of the most popular in the page's history, sided with the protesters.
"It's sad that people are so angry about a minimal inconvenience that forces a commemoration of the tragic deaths of human lives by the police," read the comment, with 93 likes. "The car delay is really insignificant when weighed against that."
"Don't the streets get blocked for breast cancer walks and parades?? Races and other things???" asked another commenter. "People are tired of injustice and tired of being treated unfairly…it's about time people started to listen."
But some complained that the stoppages could have had a negative impact on certain people with medical issues.
"To the morons saying this wasn't a inconvenience. My dialysis patients that were over an hour late to their treatment because of all the back ups would disagree. Because of this patients treatments will most likely be cut short," said one commenter.
"If you weren't there you shouldn't pass judgement," countered one protester. "We weren't even in emergency route long and moved out of the way when an ambulance had to get through."
In the end, the protest brought traffic to a standstill on Route 18 for just under half an hour, before protesters exited the highway and brought a halt to traffic just south of the Albany Street bridge, which connects New Brunswick and Highland Park.
That stoppage lasted roughly a half-hour as well.
There, the organizers told the crowd to stop and to sit in the street, while another group of protestors linked up in a circle surrounding them.
Ezra Sholom, one of the organizers, began to read a few of the last words of recent victims of alleged police brutality.
"Michael Brown, age 18, Ferguson, Missouri: 'I don't have a gun. Stop shooting.'"
"Trayon Martin, 17 years old,: 'What are you following me for?'"
"Kenneth Chamberlain, 66 years old, on November 19 2011: 'Officers, why do you have your guns out?'"
"Eric Garner, 43 years old, Staten Island, 'I can't breathe'"
Sholom intended to proceed but the cars behind him had become irritated and began to honk, which was immediately met with shouts from the protestors.
TURNING POINT OF PROTEST
After New Brunswick police gathered reinforcements, including officers, vehicles to transport prisoners, and video cameras, a lieutenant made an announcement over his vehicle's public address system telling protesters to disperse or face arrest.
"All New Brunswick officers, step up to underneath the bridge now!" said an officer over the police radio.
As a number of police moved in towards the protesters, Sholom directed the group to rise up and march back into New Brunswick.
Repeating "Black lives matter," the marchers forced the police to briefly march with them as the cops returned to the slew police vehicles left near the rear of the Hyatt Hotel.
Before the officers could arrest anyone, the protestors moved to the sidewalk and began to march defiantly towards George Street past the row of police vehicles.
After passing the cop cars, the group returned to the street and again slowed traffic.
They stopped twice to let a few individuals voice their anger before turning onto George Street, the downtown's main drag, and later onto Bayard Street, going past City Hall.
Local residents and business owners greeted the protestors with cheers and shouts of support, which boosted the morale of the group, marching on despite increasingly heavy rainfall.
"Tonight we shut down Route 18 on both sides of the highway which hasn't been done in over 5 years," reads a post on the Facebook page of the People's Coalition Against Police Brutality, a new group that launched this year at Rutgers and led the protests.
"Everything we did after that as far as I know has never been done. We shut down Route 27 and staged a die-in in the streets," it continues. "We then marched through George St. and shut down the most heavily trafficked and frequented street in New Brunswick. We shut down the New Brunswick Police Station and staged a die-in in front of there."
"DIE-IN" RIGHT IN FRONT OF NEW BRUNSWICK POLICE STATION
By 5:30pm, as rain continued to fall, police and protesters were ready to meet each other halfway.
The group originally planned to stage a "die-in" in front of the entrance to the police station's underground parking garage to stop the police from performing their job. However, it was brought to their attention that such an action would lead to severe consequences so they staged it in front of the police station.
"These guys seem like they're listening to reason," said Seargent Raymond Trigg, over the police radio.
"Today we remember our black women, our latino women who are killed by the police, today we remember it is not just our brothers, it is our sisters," began one of the organizers as she began to list female victims.
"Today we won't forget these women, today we remember what we are doing is in their legacy."
The protestors roared with approval as a single individual pointing out it was only a fraction of the victims.
They began to get riled up as her speech continued.
"You officers can stand here with us in solidarity, but you don't," the woman shouted before noticing an African-American officer.
"Shame to you, my brother over there," which lead to a chant of shaming the officer.
"Y'all traded in your ropes for guns, but guess what 'massa'? We're not begging for sh*t anymore," which was met with roar from the protestors. "You forget when you take your badge off, when you take off that uniform, you a n*gga, just like us."
The protestors roared at the rhetoric before calming down. The group then proceeded to march again towards Easton Avenue, and eventually to Brower Commons.
It was very noticable a large amount of plain clothed officers had began to follow the protest and many were recording, so the protestors began to taunt them and began to point them out in front of the crowd for ridicule.
As the crowd made its way up Easton Avenue, they blocked the street again. But after learning an ambulance needed to get through to St. Peter's Hospital, the crowd cleared the way.
More people began to leave, but those that stayed were even more energized as they walked down Stone Street.
Arriving in front of Brower the protestors were met with colder glances. While those that did support were vocal, many simply avoided eye contact all together.
The protestors stopped in front of the buses for a few minutes before moving to the sidewalks.
Shortly before 6:15, New Brunswick police opted to "hang back" and let Rutgers Police handle the situation.
Although those that remained were joined by students who were already on College ave, it still remained a smaller group than the one that started.
Ultimately, protest leaders and police agreed that taking over Route 18 a second time could be a public safety hazard due to the slick road conditions and low light.
CURIOUS CANCELATION OF HOLIDAY CEREMONY IN DOWNTOWN
Just about an hour before the crowd started gathering at the Douglass Student Center, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill made the stunning announcement that the city would cancel its annual "tree lighting" ceremony in downtown due to the protests.
The crowd of hundreds eventually dwindled down to dozens after traveling more than two miles through the city, but never came within a block of the Monument Square, where the annual holiday event usually takes place.
Organizers said they never planned to attend the tree lighting ceremony. They had their hearts set on the highway.
But the Mayor's Office indicated otherwise.
"Monument Square has also been announced as the planned destination for a group protesting the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York," read the statement issued just under three hours before the tree lighting ceremony was set to begin.
"Given the threat of inclement weather further complicating tonight’s scheduled events and the logistical problems of large numbers of people attempting to occupy the same space but for different purposes, the tree lighting ceremony has been canceled."
In 2011, the "tree lighting" was attended by protesters addressing a New Brunswick police killing without incident.
It appears that the event will not be rescheduled.
"I am under the impression that there are no plans to reschedule," said Jennifer Bradshaw, the spokesperson for Mayor Cahill. "If you'd like to discuss the why of that decision, I suggest speaking to Pam Stefanek at City Market."
Stefanek did not immediately respond to a question from New Brunswick Today.
According to the city's Facebook page, it is the "22nd annual" tree lighting, having been a Hub City tradition nearly as long as Cahill, who was first elected in 1991.
For the first time this year, no one ran against Cahill as he sought and received four more years. His seventh term as the city's chief executive begins in 2015.