As the protesters approached Capitol Hill, where a rally was staged, many chanted slogans including “hands up, don’t shoot” — a reference to the alleged last words of Michael Brown, 18, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Other chants included “no justice, no peace” and “can’t stop, won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks.”
Speaking at the rally, Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Alliance led the protest, declared "this is not a black march or a white march, this is an American march for the rights of the American people."
"We don’t come to Washington as shooters and chokers. We come as the shot and the choked to help deal with citizens who can’t breathe in their own communities," he said.
Before dying, Garner repeatedly gasped "I can't breathe" — a statement that has become a rallying cry at nationwide protests against police violence.
Sharpton called on Congress to pass laws that would protect citizens from police brutality and let federal prosecutors take over cases involving alleged police crimes. Local prosecutors who work with police regularly and then must investigate officers face a conflict of interest, he said.
Other speakers included Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother.
"What a sea of people," she said. "If they don't see this and make a change, then I don't know what we got to do. Thank you for having my back."
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, also spoke, urging those present to lift their voices beyond the rally.
"Don’t just come to the rally and go home. The numbers look nice. You guys look good out there, but it cannot stop here. This has to be the start," she said.
Also present were relatives of Tamir Rice, 12, who was shot and killed in November by a Cleveland police officer who said he mistook the boy’s pellet gun for a real weapon.
Protests – some violent – have been staged throughout the United States since grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict the officers who killed Brown and Garner.
In response to the growing movement, politicians and others have talked about the need for better police training, body cameras and changes in the grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system.
Protester Terry Baisden, 52, of Baltimore said she is "hopeful change is coming" and that the movement is not part of a fleeting flash of anger.