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Unequal Treatment of 2 Protesters in Eric Garner Case, One White and One Black

Author: Jim Dwyer for the New York Times

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Shawn Torres, left, and Benjamin Perry, graduate students at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, were arrested while protesting the grand jury decision in the death of Eric Garner. CreditOzier Muhammad/The New York Times

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It is a misdemeanor in New York to abandon animals or deprive them of food, water or “a sufficient supply of good and wholesome air,” and so far this year, more than 100 arrests have been made in the city for such neglect or worse. One couple was sentenced to community service and had to pay $2,000 in restitution after leaving their dog behind when they were evicted from an apartment on Staten Island.

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No case has been brought in the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man with chronic illnesses who was struggling to breathe after he was brought to the ground during an arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. A videotape shows him unconscious on a sidewalk, propped to one side, still cuffed, during the wait for an ambulance. No one got around to giving him CPR or oxygen. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

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Physical force comes with the police job, and fallibility comes with the police officer. No reform this side of heaven will fix that. But what happens when a man saying he cannot breathe loses consciousness after his arrest?

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At least on Staten Island, it appears neglect of a dog is taken more seriously under some circumstances than neglect of a human. And the perception that a black human does not rate the same deference as an animal, much less a white person, has brought thousands of people to the street across the country.

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Two of those were Shawn Torres, 23, and Benjamin Perry, 24, both graduate students at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. They took part in rolling demonstrations Friday night, as a cold, soaking rain swept across the city. At the end of the evening, they briefly blockaded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive near Delancey Street and both were arrested, as they expected to be.

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But Mr. Perry, a white man, and Mr. Torres, a black man, say what happened to them showed disparate treatment in subtle and stark ways. The president of the seminary has written to Mayor Bill de Blasio to suggest that the experiences of the students were “an object lesson” for retraining officers; the Police Department said it would have to review the details of the matter.

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Standing on the road with arms linked just after 11 p.m., they heard a police sergeant’s final warning but had already decided they would disobey.

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“We were peacefully offering ourselves up,” Mr. Perry said.

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“Two officers grabbed me,” Mr. Torres said, and cuffed him with the plastic ties. “In the process, one of them ended up pushing Ben away. This is when the difference comes in.”

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“I put my hands behind my head, waiting,” Mr. Perry said. “Another officer grabbed me and threw me face first on the ground. He put his head next to my ears and whispered, ‘Just get out of here.’

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Mr. Torres, meanwhile, had been deposited in the back of a police van. “I was the first one,” he said.

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Mr. Perry climbed to his feet. “I was bewildered, but I wasn’t going to leave Shawn,” he said. “I just stood there and waited. In 15 to 20 seconds, another officer saw me looking around. He cuffed me, but he didn’t want to process me. He took me around to other cops, saying, ‘Do you want to take this guy? I don’t want to be out that late.’ He was shopping me around.” Eventually he found an officer to escort Mr. Perry.

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They were driven to Police Headquarters, where their belts and shoelaces were confiscated. Several buttons with pins were removed from Mr. Torres’s clothing — “the officer told me they were weapons,” he said — but identical ones were left on his white schoolmate. Mr. Perry insisted on making a phone call, but the phone was dead. He was able to prevail on his arresting officer to contact a hotline at the seminary for the protests.

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Not so for Mr. Torres. “I asked my arresting officer three times to make a call for me, but he would not,” Mr. Torres said. The pen was a racially mixed group of about 20 people. According to both men, the officer overseeing them, a black man, got into a debate with the demonstrators, saying that their beef was with the judicial system, not the police, and that they ought to be protesting black-on-black crime. The officer, they said, acknowledged that an indictment might have been brought in a borough other than Staten Island, one not so friendly to the police.

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Was it possible that the differences in their treatment stemmed not from their races but from the disposition of the officers who arrested them? “No,” Mr. Torres said firmly. “Black and white bodies are not treated equally.”

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DMU Timestamp: December 10, 2014 22:41

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