Eric Garner’s Mother Is Still Waiting for Closure, Two Years After His Death

"We need to stop the killing, we need to start healing, and the only way we can do this is to come together."

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Jul 18 2016, 5:30pm

Gwen Carr, left, with Al Sharpton on Saturday. Photo by the author

On Saturday, almost exactly two years after a New York City cop fatally choked Eric Garner on Staten Island, black mothers who have lost children to police violence gathered in Brooklyn to demand justice for his family.

The videotaped police killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana was still fresh, as was the footage of Philando Castile's girlfriend calmly describing his own killing by police near St. Paul, Minnesota. Also fresh: the shooting of 12 police officers—five fatally—at a Black Lives Matter event in Dallas, Texas. No one could know a similar tragedy was about to play out on a smaller scale in Baton Rouge Sunday, when three more officers were shot dead and three others wounded. Even so, the tone at the House of the Lord Pentecostal was a measured one, the pleas for justice colored by the racial tension that has somehow reached new heights in recent weeks.

"We need to stop the killing," said Gwen Carr, Garner's mother. "We need to start healing, and the only way we can do this is to come together."

Along with the mothers of Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, and Ramarley Graham, all black men killed by police, Carr called for the indictment of the officer responsible for the death of her child, a wish that seemed to carry an extra note of desperation with the federal inquiry into the incident stuck in limbo.

Despite clear video of the killing, the federal civil rights case against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold on July 17, 2014, remains open. (Pantaleo was cleared at the local level by a Staten Island grand jury that same year.) Widely disseminated footage taken by Garner's neighborhood pal Ramsey Orta shows Pantaleo and another officer speaking with the 43-year-old in the Tompkinsville neighborhood, apparently about whether he was selling loose cigarettes on the street. Pantaleo is then seen grabbing Garner around the neck and holding him on the ground until he goes limp, the father of six crying out "I can't breathe" 11 times.

The Garner family was initially optimistic the video would convince grand jurors to send the case to criminal trial, but now federal action is their only hope. Prosecutors in DC are reportedly feeling more confident about such action than their counterparts at the US attorney's office in Brooklyn, a testament to the enduring challenge of creating space between cops and the people who bring criminal cases. According to the New York Times, representatives from both US attorney's offices recently met with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch in Washington to make their case.

The outrage surrounding Garner's death, the first in a series of police killings to garner national outrage that year, continues to draw big names in the black community. Reverend Al Sharpton and Beyoncé's mother-in-law, Gloria Carter, spoke at the event, the musician filming a short video message that was played in her stead.

"We wanted to be here today to show that two years later, we're still with the mother of Eric Garner, and we're going to stay with her until justice is pursued," Sharpton said.

Justice, according to Sharpton, Minister Kirsten John Foy, and other black leaders, would be indictment of Pantaleo and the rest of the cops present at the scene of Garner's death.

It would also mean police reform.

The Office of the Inspector General for the New York Police Department released a report following Garner's death exploring ten cases between 2009 and June 2014 when officers used the chokehold, which has been officially banned by the NYPD since 1993. The New York City Council proposed a bill fully criminalizing the tactic last year, but it failed to gain support when Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to veto it. In response, US congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who spoke at the event Saturday, has introduced legislation in Congress that would make the maneuver illegal at the national level.

Meanwhile, Pantaleo remains employed with the New York City Police Department, which Commissioner Bill Bratton on Friday said has placed its own (complete) internal probe into Garner's death on hold until federal prosecutors make their move.

Carr, along with the other mothers whose sons and daughters have been killed by police, insisted she will keep at it until justice has been served. The renewed commitment followed a weekend of rallies by Black Lives Matter groups from Florida to Oregon, events that were soon sullied by the brazen attack on police by 29-year-old former marine Gavin Long.

On Saturday, about 200 people marched for three and a half miles in blistering humidity for Garner. Elderly women with canes, children, cousins, aunts, church leaders in suits, and other members of the black community led call-and-response chants, focusing on Garner's final pleas for help.

The mothers went around one at a time, reciting the names of their children and the dates of their deaths. The women stood solemnly side-by-side, many of them wearing T-shirts commemorating their sons and daughters. The tenacity of the mothers was a recurring theme throughout the proceedings: headlines move on to the next shooting—or some other breaking news—even when families don't. The killings of Sterling and Castile seemed only to have reinvigorated the women to keep rallying, according to Marion-Gray Hopkins, whose son Gary Hopkins Jr. was fatally shot by police in 1999.

"Here we are 17 years later with the same narrative that we hear every time one of our loved ones gets murdered by law enforcement," she said. "I'm here united with these mothers, united with Ms. Carr in solidarity to say, we are expecting change."

Follow Shelby Hartman on Twitter.

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