NEW YORK — The relatives of an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer’s chokehold said Tuesday that the nearly $6 million settlement they reached with the city wasn’t a victory as they continued pressing for federal civil rights charges.
“The victory will come when we get justice,” Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said a day after the $5.9 million settlement was announced.
“Justice,” added one of Garner’s children, Emerald Snipes, “is when somebody is held accountable for what they do.”
The settlement came nearly a year after the 43-year-old Garner died, having repeatedly pleaded “I can’t breathe!” as Officer Daniel Pantaleo took him to the ground with an arm around his neck. Garner lost consciousness and was pronounced dead later at a hospital.
Garner, who was heavyset and had asthma, had refused to be handcuffed after being stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on a Staten Island street.
The encounter, caught on an onlooker’s video, spurred protests about police treatment of black men. Coupled with police killings of unarmed black men elsewhere in recent months, Garner’s death became a flashpoint in a national debate about relations between police and minority communities.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said at a news conference Tuesday with Garner’s relatives that “‘I can’t breathe’ spurred the national movement” and it won’t end “until we change how policing goes.”
The city medical examiner found the police chokehold contributed to Garner’s death. But Pantaleo’s lawyer said the officer had used a permissible takedown maneuver known as a seatbelt, not a chokehold, banned under New York Police Department policy.
A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn are investigating whether there’s evidence to warrant charges that the officer deliberately violated Garner’s civil rights. Such cases are rare after grand jury inaction or acquittal at state level.
Police Commissioner William Bratton declined to comment Tuesday on the Garner case. The settlement came before any lawsuit was filed, though the family had filed notice of its intention to sue. The city did not admit any liability.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking Tuesday night at a church prayer service in honor of Garner, said Garner had not died in vain and his death could be an agent of change in the relationship between the police and communities.
“This is a new chapter in our relationship between the police and our communities,” de Blasio said. “That will make us a better people. That will make us a more just city. That will make us a safer city.”
De Blasio, who is white and is married to a black woman, spoke at the church the night of the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer. At that time, he connected personally to Garner’s death, speaking of how he talked to his biracial son about being careful in his dealings with police.
Those comments sparked outrage from police unions, who accused de Blasio of fostering an anti-police sentiment. When two officers were killed by a gunman in December, some officers turned their backs on the mayor at their funerals.
De Blasio made sure to be inclusive in his remarks on Tuesday.
“All lives matter,” he said, before explicitly saying that while it should be self-evident, it must still be said that “Black lives matter” and, after he praised the police, “Blue lives matter.”
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