"When does your decency kick in?" Police overreach and the Eric Garner difference

Another funeral for another unarmed black man taken down by NYPD. But here's how videotape may set this case apart

By Eric Lach

Published July 24, 2014 3:53PM (EDT)

A memorial for Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, July 21, 2014.                  (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
A memorial for Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, July 21, 2014. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Eric Garner wasn't the only person people were talking about on Wednesday outside Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, where Garner's funeral took place. Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez -- the names came up quickly, other men killed in altercations with police, a list Garner's name has now been added to.

"This case is what's come behind it," Tahir Rahman, of Brooklyn, said late Wednesday afternoon, before the funeral service began. Rahman, who said he didn't know Garner personally, was one of several men who came to Wednesday's service wearing the bright orange T-shirts of a community group called the Peace Keepers. "I just pray it never happens, but we know it will happen again."

Hundreds of family, friends, clergy, elected officials and community members turned out for the service, the latest in a series of events held in memory of Garner, the 43-year-old Staten Island man who died last Thursday after being put in a chokehold by an officer trying to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes. A video of the incident, in which Garner can be heard repeatedly crying out that he couldn't breathe, has inspired widespread outrage over his death, and prompted a criminal investigation.

On Wednesday, the cops were out for Garner's funeral, too. Uniformed members of the New York Police Department arrived early in the day and were stationed on the street outside Bethel Baptist, but there did not appear to be much interaction between police and the attendees.

Inside the church, Garner's white coffin lay beneath the pulpit. The place was packed, both on the ground floor and in the balconies, and as the service got underway some attendees were urged to give up their seats so that members of Garner's family could find space. Small paper fans were distributed, which people used against the heat. The speakers would include members of Garner's family, clergymen and public figures. All offered different responses to his death. And that was the through-line in the service, trying to figure out how to respond to a needless death.

"We as a community must answer the call," minister Kirsten John Foy, chairman of the Brooklyn Conference of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said early in the program. "Because we as a community, together, collectively, is all that has the power to stop this from happening again. It keeps happening because we are not united and vigilant enough."

Garner, who grew up just blocks from Bethel Baptist in the Gowanus Houses, is survived by his wife and six children; he was referred to as a "family man" and a "gentle giant" during the service. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said that "justice" would be demanded for Garner's death.

"There will be a full and complete investigation, not only in the use of chokeholds, but all the individuals who have filed complaints with the civilian complaint review board," James said. "I say to you tonight that we will demand that all street encounters going forward be videotaped in the city of New York ... I say to you tonight that I join with Police Commissioner Bratton in urging that every police officer be retrained, but more important than that, that they be culturally sensitive and respect the rights and dignity of all suspects and all individuals."

Sharpton's remarks were met with huge cheers from the attendees.

"The chokehold is illegal, but even if you lost your training memory, a man is in your arms saying, 'I can't breathe,'" Sharpton said. "When does your decency kick in? When does your morality kick in?

Sharpton announced that a meeting had been set for Friday with the U.S. Attorney's Office's Civil Rights Division. He, too, put Garner's death in the context of past cases, but said Garner's case had something that set it apart.

"This time, there was a video, you can't tell no lie this time," he said. "Go to the tape!"

Sharpton called Ramsey Ortiz, the young man who videotaped last Thursday's incident, up to the podium, prompting a standing ovation.

"This young man ... he turned around and said, 'This is wrong, I'm going to video it,'" Sharpton said.

Eric Lach


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