WASHINGTON (CN) – Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, sat beside Reverend Al Sharpton as she testified before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday where she called on Congress to take nationwide action to reign in law enforcement’s use of excessive force.
Carr said that her family has fought five years for an “ounce of accountability” for the officers responsible for her son’s death.
Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. opened with Garner’s now famous final words: “I can’t breath.”
Garner uttered those words eleven times as New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked him to death in 2014.
During the four-hour hearing, photos of other black men killed by police – including Michael Brown who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri — flashed on screens around the room.
“The justice system failed you, your son and your entire family,” Nadler told Carr.
Last month, the New York Police Department fired Pantaleo, after the Justice Department declined to bring criminal charges.
Two months after the death of her husband, Carr testified that her entire family has been traumatized by the fight for justice. With Sharpton’s hand resting on her shoulder, Carr said her granddaughter, Erica Garner, named for her father, died in 2017 of a heart attack at 27-years-old.
“I say she died of a broken heart,” Carr said. “These are the wounds of the seen and unseen from the police brutality. The loss of loved ones and no resources, no accountability.”
Sharpton said the call for federal legislation to hold officers accountable is not anti-police.
“No one should want bad cops punished more than good cops, whose names are smeared because people get to choke people on tape, hearing eleven times ‘I can’t breath,’” Sharpton said.
Referring to Pantaleo’s recent firing, Sharpton continued: “And you’ve got to go through five years of torment and finally be turned down and got to beg, pray and march to just take his job. This is not what America should be about.”
Representative Henry Johnson, D-Ga., echoed statements made by both Democrats and Republicans during the hearing that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are brave and honorable.
But Johnson said the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed civilians, predominantly people of color, in the U.S. cannot be ignored.
Members of both parties agreed officers are under stress – with five times the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder compared to civilians and more deaths by suicide than in the line of duty.
The hearing descended into chaos when Representative Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used his time to unleash questions based on a 2002 resolution brought forth by former Florida congressman – now an MSNBC host – Joe Scarborough accusing Sharpton of being racist.
Democrats accused Gaetz of attacking the witness. His barrage of questions focused on past “bigoted” statements from Sharpton on Jewish people, African Americans and white people.
Nadler struggled to maintain order, rejecting calls from fellow Democrats to reign in Gaetz, saying committee rules allow for “very wide latitude.” He later said that while the congressman’s comment may be obnoxious, he did not hold the power as chairman to overrule Gaetz.
Sharpton denied the quotes included in the Scarborough resolution, calling them “patently untrue.”
The clash marked the second heated dialogue during the hearing. Hours earlier, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank testified she does not believe there is racial bias tied to police shootings, offering up academic research as proof.
The next witness, Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, abandoned his prepared statement to refute her claims, saying he did not want to be a part of anything that becomes a “laundromat for junk science.”
The fellow, Heather Mac Donald, defended her opinion that black suspects are no more vulnerable to police brutality than white suspects.
“I submit that the belief that we are living through an epidemic of racially biased police shooting is a creation of selective reporting,” said Mac Donald, who, during the remainder of the hearing, was not called to answer questions by the committee members.
Taking up the larger question of gun control, the committee also discussed how tighter regulation on firearms might reduce police shootings.
Ron Davis, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office, said he did not want to get into a gun debate.
“But as a black male I ask one simple thing,” he said. “Doesn’t my body have more privilege than a gun? Why are we so willing to fight and push back on anything that would restrict the Second Amendment but when it comes to … the seizure of my black body that all the sudden there are controversies?”