Hundreds of demonstrators staged protests and "die-ins" outside New York's Barclays Center Monday night ahead of the Brooklyn Nets-Cleveland Cavaliers NBA game. Protesters walked through traffic and sprawled flat in the streets to denounce racism and the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both black men who died at the hands of white police officers this year.
The event coincided with Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton's appearance at the game, inspiring the hashtag #royalshutdown. Inside the rusty, oval-shaped Barclays stadium, Cavs star LeBron James and many Nets players wore black T-shirts with "I can't breathe" written across the chest -- the last words uttered by Garner as a Staten Island policeman strangled him in a choke hold.
"Oxygen is the most basic, fundamental human right … and the blatant disrespect of that right is disgusting. People need to be mobilized around this," said Melissa Fernandez, 43, who was holding up a cardboard poster that read, "Our Lives Matter."
Fernandez said she has tried to participate in protests every day since last Wednesday when a New York grand jury voted not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Garner. A separate grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot Michael Brown in August, fueled violent protests around St. Louis in recent weeks.
"The more days that we're out from the non-indictments, the more important it is that we're still rallying," Fernandez said. "People think that it's going to die out, that it's just going to be part of the phase of people's outrage, and then it peters out. It's important we remain visible."
Protesters began the frigid evening outside the Barclays' main entrance, chanting and holding signs that accused the New York police of racist practices and decried the lack of justice in the Garner and Brown cases. Officers in blue and black jackets quietly observed from the sidelines of the triangular plaza, their holstered guns visible around their waists. Ticketholders walked around the crowd to enter the arena, with some grumbling about the inconvenience.
At one point, demonstrators lay on the ground, their bodies stiff and mostly motionless. They rose after 10 minutes and lifted their arms, shouting "Hands up! Don't shoot!" in tribute to Brown, who was unarmed when Wilson shot him seven times. The group later walked into traffic down Pacific Avenue, blocking honking cars as protesters circled around an intersection. A second die-in stopped traffic along the adjacent Atlantic Avenue until police ushered the crowd back onto the sidewalk.
Talal Ahmed, who is studying journalism in St. Louis, said he flew to New York to cover and attend the protests. "It's important to me because I'm a young black male in America. I am Michael Brown. I am Eric Garner," the 30-year-old said. At the same time, he added, "It's also important for us to not marginalize and say, 'Oh, that's a Ferguson issue. This is a New York issue.' We need to come together and help each other, because there's strength in numbers."