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Out of a mother's grief, a plea to end police chokeholds

Eric Garner’s mother called on Congress to pass a federal law barring police officers from using the type of restraint that killed her son.
Image: Al Sharpton Gwen Carr
Rev. Al Sharpton, and Gwen Carr testify the House Judiciary Committee on policing practices in the United States on Sept. 19, 2019 in Washington.Astrid Riecken / Getty Images

Five years after Eric Garner’s death, his mother, Gwen Carr, sat before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday and urged its members to pass a bill preventing the use of the chokehold that killed her son in 2014.

“I come before you today to not only share my son’s story and our long quest for justice, but to urge you to take immediate action to implement national changes and standards toward policing,” she said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights advocates also testified before the committee, calling on members to pass the Eric Garner Excessive Use of Force Prevention Act.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, introduced the bill in 2015.

Jefferies has also sponsored other bills aimed at changing the criminal justice system, including bills that would allow ex-offenders to register and vote, include internet use in hate crime reporting and promote improved incarcerated representation.

At Thursday’s hearing, Jeffries thanked Carr “for turning your pain into progress.”

Eric Garner was unarmed when then-New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. In video footage of the incident, Garner says, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly to officers making the arrest. Those words later became a rallying cry in the debate surrounding racially motivated police brutality and police accountability.

In 2014, the medical examiner ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide as a result of “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” At the time, chokeholds were prohibited by the NYPD. That same year, a New York grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, prompting a federal inquiry.

Earlier this summer, Attorney General William Barr announced that Pantaleo would not face federal criminal charges in connection with Garner’s death. Soon after, Pantaelo was fired by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, a decision Pantaelo has said he will fight in court.

Carr told members of Congress on Thursday that she wants justice for her son, and that passage of the the bill named for him would be a step in that direction.

“How come nobody was held accountable?” she asked. “Violent police have no place in this society.”