NY Church Holds Prayer Service for Eric Garner

Row of empty church pews.
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NEW YORK (AP) — Gospel music mixed with cries of grief at a Brooklyn church filled to overflowing with mourners for the funeral of a man who died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold, and his family was scheduled to meet with federal prosecutors in efforts to get a civil rights probe of his death.

The service for Eric Garner Wednesday night at Brooklyn’s Bethel Baptist Church opened with a mix of solemn prayer and an organ-backed gospel medley. Garner’s relatives stopped in front of his open casket, some weeping and wailing.

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, 43, can be heard gasping, “I can’t breathe!”

Police had suspected Garner of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street.

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.”

At the end of the service, Garner’s relatives stood near the casket, some holding each other up, their faces gleaming with tears, as a young woman from the family delivered a stirring rendition of the Mariah Carey song “Hero.”

Garner’s sister, Ellisha Flagg, thanked mourners for supporting the family and asked all of his relatives in the church to stand before introducing Garner’s 90-year-old aunt, Katherine Williams.

Williams said she assumed the role of grandmother after Garner’s died and recalled how he picked her up on the Fourth of July and they spent the day with family on Coney Island. She then belted out a spiritual song that got mourners, including The Rev. Al Sharpton, clapping along.

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.”

“When does your decency kick in? When does your morality kick in?” Sharpton said.

Hundreds of people watched outside the church as pallbearers loaded Garner’s body into the hearse. After the door was closed, his cousin Melvin Scott stopped for a moment, praying before placing his hand against the vehicle’s rain-speckled back window.

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.