Funeral held for man who died in NY police custody

July 23, 2014 - 10:35 PM
APTOPIX Arrest Struggle Death

Funeral services are held for Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. An overflow crowd packed a church for the funeral of the man who died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, Julia Xanthos, Pool)

NEW YORK (AP) — An overflow crowd packed a church and sang songs on Wednesday at 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, who police suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes, 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."

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."

"When does your decency kick in? When does your morality kick in?" Sharpton said.

At the end of the service, Garner's relatives stood near his 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 his family and introduced his 90-year-old aunt, Katherine Williams, who belted out a spiritual song that got mourners, including Sharpton, clapping along.

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 suspended without pay.

The New York Police Department has vowed to retrain its officers on the use of force.