'I can't breathe': Why Eric Garner protests are gaining momentum

People take part in a protest against the grand jury decision on the death of Eric Garner in midtown Manhattan in New York

Suddenly, it feels like the 1960s again, with swirling movements for social justice finding inspiration and a powerful common denominator in the struggle for black equality.

Multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational Americans have swarmed the streets in vast numbers to not only protest against racial injustice but to expose systemic oppression that has been an open secret since the heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The decision by a Staten Island, New York, grand jury not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantoleo in the choking death of Eric Garner came nine days after Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into an open rebellion following another grand jury's decision not to indict former police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager.

While violence engulfed parts of downtown Ferguson, 170 cities staged largely peaceful demonstrations both in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and in demand of a vision of social justice that far surpasses the imagination of most contemporary politicians and pundits.

Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets on Wednesday and Thursday nights to express outrage against the political system that allowed a black man to be choked to death while screaming, "I can't breathe!"

New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio shone during a press conference, poignantly recalling warning his biracial son, Dante, how to behave around police officers. He also explained to white New Yorkers why the slogan "Black Lives Matter" was so tragically necessary in our own time.

"Black Lives Matter" has become, like an earlier generation's use of the terms "Freedom Now" and "We Shall Overcome," an anthem for contemporary civil and human rights activism. The struggle for black equality historically and now, offers us all a chance to transform and save American democracy.

The dramatic realisation that the Age of Obama is also the Age of Ferguson has galvanized thousands of Americans to take to the streets to both vent their frustration against state-sanctioned violence and to offer up a vision of radical democracy and social change on a scale that America has never seen.

The New Deal's blend of social democracy and capitalism faltered due to institutional racism that excluded blacks from the burgeoning postwar American middle class. The Great Society's ambitious War on Poverty atrophied beneath the weight of America's imperial mission in Vietnam.

Ferguson has revealed that many are ready to demand a radically expansive vision of social democracy, that goes beyond the New Deal and Great Society.

Activists converge in articulating a vision of redistributive social democratic justice. They realise that rescuing Wall Street and Big Banks has come at the expense of not just the precarious middle class but the working poor, minimum wage workers, and those mired in poverty.

In many ways the Black Lives Matters Movement is a continuation of not just civil rights era demonstrations, but more recent movements - Occupy Wall Street, Occupy the Hood, Living Wage Campaigns, and Trayvon Martin. If this were a multiple choice test listing most important causes and concerns, many would check all of the above even as they place racial and economic justice at the centerpiece of a panoramic justice movement.

Grassroots protest from Oakland to Boston have shut down highways, closed down train stations, and clogged major bridges. Activists have borrowed tactics dating back to the social-democratic movements of the Great Depression and World War II era through to civil rights era of the 1960s and anti-apartheid activism of the 1980s.

Contemporary activists and observers also would do well to recall the pugnacious side of those who starred in the heroic decade of the civil rights movement that spanned the mid-1950s and 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jr. made stinging critiques of American capitalism, arguing, by 1967, that materialism, militarism, and racism were the "triple threats" facing humanity.

Stokely Carmichael, who popularised the chant "Hell No, We Won't Go!" and opposed the Vietnam War before King or Muhammad Ali, did not hold back from attacking the entire social and political system either.

The Black Panthers, which Carmichael had belonged to, argued for a socialist revolution, offering a ten point programme that singled out police brutality as a systemic evil and advocated for transformed public schools, prisons, "land, peace, bread, and justice."

Decades later, the Obama administration has still failed to recognise, articulate, and combat the larger questions of institutional racism, inequality, and violence (in myriad forms) directed against people of colour specifically, black people especially, and Americans in general.

This is not surprising. Radical change begins from the bottom up. Creatively disruptive, morally passionate, and policy-specific demonstrations, rallies, protests, and organising helped to change America.

From prisons to public schools, playgrounds and street corners, private homes to shopping centers, black life remains under assault almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Black Lives Matter is a statement that civil rights leaders in the past would have most certainly agreed on.

Even as then, like now, they adopted different courses of action to make this tragically haunting phrase more than just words.