Preacher after preacher stepped up to the pulpit at a sweltering Brooklyn church on Wednesday to express fury at the city’s police force during the funeral of Eric Garner, who died soon after police put him in a banned chokehold.
As hundreds of mourners fanned themselves against the heat, the outrage sparked across New York City by video recordings, which show Garner flat on a sidewalk pleading to the officer gripping his neck that he cannot breathe, was never far from the surface.
Officers have been banned from using chokeholds for more than 20 years and the city has said it will investigate why the practice appears to persist.
Between bursts of gospel singing, ministers preached loudly and angrily over Garner’s flower-bedecked white coffin, expressing impatience with promises from Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, that the training of police officers will be overhauled.
“The choke hold is illegal. But even if you lost your training memory, a man in your arm saying, ‘I can’t breathe’ – when does your decency kick in? When does your morality kick in?” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and talk show host. “Let’s not play games with this. You don’t need no training to stop choking a man saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ You don’t need no cultural orientation to stop choking a man saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ You need to be prosecuted.”
The congregation filled with shouts, applause and amens.
Known to his friends as Big E, Garner, 43, had six children and had worked over the years as a mechanic, a nightclub security man, and as a gardener for the city’s park’s department. He was known in his neighborhood for breaking up fights, his friends say.
Police say they knew him better for selling out-of-state cigarettes on the street, and were arresting him last Thursday on suspicion of this misdemeanor when they tackled him to the ground during a heated argument. Garner, who had a history of health problems, including asthma, died soon after his body fell limp on the sidewalk.
Mayor de Blasio has called Garner’s death, the cause of which has not yet been determined by the medical examiner, a tragedy.
De Blasio was elected last year in part because of his promise to mend frayed relations between the police and New Yorkers, especially the black and Latino men who were stopped and frisked on the street in disproportionate numbers.
A federal judge declared the way the police department used the practice unconstitutional last year, and ordered a federal monitor to oversee the police.
Bratton, the police commissioner, has said he did not think race was a factor in the death of Garner, who was black. But for the Bethel Baptist congregation, it was the centermost factor.
“We are going to march until we no longer have to come to funerals for this reason,” Bishop Victor Brown of Staten Island’s Mount Sinai United Christian Church told the cheering congregation.
“We are going to continue to march until there is drastic reform of the policy of the New York City police department so that when police officers show up in our community we will no longer have to fear for our lives and run from their presence.”