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Protests Reflect Real Harm From Police Policies, Organizer Says

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

In New York, protesters are taking to the streets today, even as an officer, shot last weekend, is laid to rest. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says demonstrators should temporarily stop protesting out of respect for Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. They were gunned down by a man who invoked the names of black men killed by police, but protesters say they do not condone violence and the demonstrations must go on. Julianne Hoffenberg is director of operations for the civil rights group Gathering for Justice and a member of Justice League NYC. Her group has been demonstrating in New York for nearly a month.

JULIANNE HOFFENBERG: We've been out on the streets since December 3, which was the day the non-indictment of Officer Pantaleo came down in the death of Eric Garner. Only a week before, we had had the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and I think our community was still trying to figure out a way through that.

When we got the news on December 3, it was almost immediate. Within 90 minutes of the announcement of the non-indictment we were mobilized. And we pretty much haven't left that state of mobilization since and we don't really plan to anytime soon.

WESTERVELT: The Occupy Movement sort of fizzled out, in part, many said, because it lacked specific policy goals. What are some specific policy changes you're calling for in New York and nationwide?

HOFFENBERG: First of all, we want an end to broken windows policing. We believe it caused the death of Eric Garner. We believe that it is practiced indiscriminately in black and brown neighborhoods. It is part of a long history of criminalizing black and brown people for crimes that non-black and brown people do every day and do not criminalized for or arrested for.

We are not anti-police, but we are anti-police brutality. And so we want to develop ways to help policing. One thing would be decentralization - the idea that police officers should be serving in the neighborhoods that they live in. There's significant training that needs to happen - crisis intervention training, de-escalation skills, violence reduction, risk assessment.

WESTERVELT: Beyond training and retraining, how do you start to rebuild trust?

HOFFENBERG: That's going to be a very long process. We need to have conversations. There should be community discussions bringing in advocates, activists, artists. In our meeting with the mayor last week, we suggested sitting down with Commissioner Bratton.

I think that would be a very fruitful conversation as well. We understand the tremendous job that police officers do all across this city and state. We have tremendous respect for them. We just believe that there are some bad apples and that there's a system in place that needs to be changed.

WESTERVELT: New York Mayor de Blasio is calling for a temporary halt to demonstrations out of respect for the police officers killed last weekend and respect for their families. But many have not stopped protesting. They basically ignored the mayor. Do you think there's anything inappropriate about protesting right now?

HOFFENBERG: Calling for us to stop protesting is part of a problem conversation that's happening. Blaming protesters for the death of two officers on Saturday, we feel that those two things had nothing to do with each other.

As tragic as the loss of those two officers are and how sorry we are for the Ramos family and the Liu family who will be without their fathers and brothers and sons this holiday season, that's how we feel about Eric Garner's family and about Akai Gurley's family and Ramarley Graham's family and Tamir Rice's family and John Crawford's family and Michael Brown's family.

So this movement is not just some sort of visceral reaction of a bunch of rabble-rousers. These are people who have been personally hurt by these policies. That's why they're out on the streets.

WESTERVELT: Julianne Hoffenberg is director of operations for Gathering for Justice and a member of the Justice League. Thanks for speaking with us.

HOFFENBERG: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.