NEW YORK (AP) — An overflow crowd packed a church on Wednesday night for the funeral of a man who died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold.
Eric Garner’s relatives stopped in front of his open casket, some weeping and wailing. A preacher opened the service at Brooklyn’s Bethel Baptist Church with a mix of solemn prayer and an organ-backed gospel medley.
Garner, who had asthma, died last week on Staten Island. An amateur video shows a plainclothes police officer placing him in what appears be a chokehold. Garner can be heard gasping, “I can’t breathe!”
At the church, the program depicted Garner as an angel and included a collage of photographs from his life and death, including one of a sign echoing what he told officers before he died: “This Stops Today.”
Pastor Sarah Taylor sang about God’s power and presence. Everything that happens in life is part of God’s plan, she said, even Garner’s death at age 43.
“If this life had to be sacrificed for somebody else, God is real,” Taylor said before breaking into the song, which centered on that line: “God is real.”
Her booming voice reverberated through the church’s sound system as mourners hooted and clapped their approval.
The Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd he was scheduled to meet Friday with the U.S. attorney’s office, and he called for a civil rights probe. He took Ramsey Orta, the man who shot the video, to the lectern and praised him for recording the arrest.
Sharpton fired up the crowd with a point-by-point dissection of the events that led to Garner’s death.
“Yes, God will make a way, but God expects something of us,” he said. “When you can, in broad daylight, choke one of God’s children, he expects us to stand up and demand justice.”
The crowd included relatives of other men killed in interactions with police: Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell.
Sharpton compared Garner’s death to that of Diallo, who was shot by officers who said they thought a wallet was a gun.
“What excuse could you come up with this time?” Sharpton asked.
He said even if police forgot their training and used an illegal chokehold, they and medics needed to react when Garner said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”
Autopsy results are pending. One officer has been stripped of his gun and badge pending an investigation. Another has been placed on desk duty. Two paramedics and two EMTs have been placed on modified duty.
The New York Police Department has vowed to retrain its officers on the use of force. The training includes sending a team of officers to Los Angeles to learn how that city’s police department modified its use-of-force protocols after several high-profile episodes of brutality.