As protesters snarled traffic and shut down the city's bridges to protest a grand jury's refusal to indict the police officer who killed Staten Island resident Eric Garner, the friends and family of Akai Gurley gathered on Saturday to mourn the 28-year-old father who was fatally shot by a police officer two weeks ago in East New York.
Gurley's funeral was held at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Fort Greene. The Rev. Al Sharpton initially said he would eulogize Gurley, who was unarmed and walking with his girlfriend when he was killed in a poorly lit stairwell of the Pink Houses by a jittery rookie officer. But Gurley's family rebuffed Sharpton's overtures.
"Gone is Akai's opportunity to raise his daughter. Gone, like the lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is another black man's life. Gone," Powell said, bringing his fist down firmly on the lectern with each man's name.
"There no such thing as a 'post-racial America.' It is a lie."
Powell noted that the funeral expenses were being paid for by Mayor de Blasio and the City of New York, a fact he said was the administration "acknowledging that Akai was innocent, innocent, innocent."
He then encouraged mourners to make their voices heard about Akai's death. "They may have killed Akai's body, but they can't kill his spirit," he said to applause, ending his eulogy leading the congregation in chants of "Akai, Akai, Akai."
Officer Peter Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau were allegedly "incommunicado for more than six and a half minutes" after Liang killed Gurley. According to the Daily News, Liang texted his union rep in those crucial moments instead of calling for assistance.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said in a statement on Friday that a grand jury will be convened to investigate the death of Akai Gurley, although "there is no timetable for the grand jury to be impaneled or for its determination to be reached."
Gurley's casket was adorned with red and white roses, and lay at the head of the ornate church next to a slideshow of moments from his childhood. Mourners saw photos of a young man smiling proudly for the camera with his high school diploma, and a more recent picture of Gurley holding his two-year-old daughter, Akaila.
Malachi Palmer, Gurley's stepbrother, took to the microphone to read a poem for his slain sibling. Clutching a book, the young boy could hardly get the words out as he wept, his father putting an arm around his shaking shoulders.
Malkia King, President of 1199 SEIU Benefit Fund Staff Association, compared Gurley to her own teenage son: "I know my child will live as a second class citizen. I have to worry every day that my son will meet the same fate as Akai."
As the service ended and the procession left the church, NYPD Community Affairs staff lingered by the doors, along with a few cops in uniform. Many mourners did not know Gurley or his family, but felt they had to come to the funeral to show their support, like Norman Frazier, 63, and M. Mortonhall, both from Brownsville. "I felt I needed to be here. And I feel somebody has to be held accountable," said Frazier.
Reflecting on the recent spate of unarmed black men killed by the police, Mortonhall drew comparisons to his own childhood. "When I was a kid, I was traumatized by the lynching and the killing. What's going to happen when the youth see this happening today, by the NYPD? There's no charges when a life is taken," said Mortonhall. "They're taking young black lives across America."
Mike Tucker, a 49-year-old from East New York and founder of the Lay The Guns Down Foundation, said cops need to get back in touch with their communities. "I don't dislike police officers, but we need to bridge the gap. There's no connection between the community and the police department anymore." Tucker lost his own son, Stephonne Crawford, when he was fatally shot by a member of the NYPD during a stop and frisk in 2005.
At one point during the service, an elderly man in the audience, who did not appear to be connected with the family, began to speak up and move fitfully in his pew, yelling about the NYPD. Reverend Clinton Miller, who was officiating the service, asked mourners to remain respectful of the family—the elderly man became more distressed until a few members of the congregation attempted to calm him, and the choir sang over his cries. He was soon escorted out of the church, walking as tears streamed down his face.