New York (AFP) — Civil rights activist Al Sharpton led hundreds of mourners in demands for justice at the funeral for a black father of six who died after being choked by New York police.
Eric Garner, 43, suffered a fatal heart attack on July 17 after being tackled by white officers for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes on Staten Island, a borough of New York City.
In a video captured by a local resident, whom Sharpton invited onto the podium, Garner cries out repeatedly that he cannot breathe as an officer grips him in a chokehold.
Garner, wearing shorts and unarmed, is shown arguing with two officers before one grabs him round the neck, wrestles him to the ground and another presses down his face.
Three other uniformed police officers are also shown arriving to help subdue Garner on the video.
“When you can in broad daylight choke one of God’s children, God expects us to stand up and demand justice,” Sharpton told the packed Bethel Baptist Church.
“The choke hold is illegal but even if you lost your training memory, a man in your arms saying ‘I can’t breathe’? When does your decency kick in? When does your morality kick in?” demanded Sharpton, also a minister and lately a news broadcaster.
Sharpton called for the two officers to be prosecuted and for a federal investigation in an emotional speech that was greeted by a standing ovation and loud cheers from the congregation, including Garner’s closest relatives.
“We’re going to demand justice,” said Sharpton. “Don’t bow down, we’ve got to win,” he said.
Friends, relatives, clergy, activists from Sharpton’s National Action Network, and a handful of black city council officers crowded into the church for the funeral, fighting off the sticky summer heat with hand-held fans.
Relatives prostrated themselves in grief over Garner’s open coffin before the lid was closed at the start of the service, a wreath of yellow and white flowers on top.
Public advocate Letitia James said the city would demand justice for Garner’s death, promising a full investigation of all chokeholds and complaints against police.
The case spotlights not only racial tensions in highly diverse New York City but has sharpened calls for police reform under New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio, who took office in January, is currently on a family vacation in Italy.
The district attorney’s office is leading a criminal investigation and both police officers have been assigned to desk duty pending the investigation, police said.
New York police chief Bill Bratton has also ordered all city officers to be retrained in the use of force.
Chokeholds are illegal because of concerns over potential deaths.
AFP Photo/Julia Xanthos
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