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Sharpton's eulogy for Irvo Otieno calls for change in police mental health response

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Family and friends gathered yesterday to remember Irvo Otieno, the 28-year-old Black man killed in custody at a Virginia psychiatric hospital earlier this month. The Reverend Al Sharpton, by now a familiar voice at the funerals of Black men killed in police custody, delivered the eulogy, and he called for new standards and laws regarding how law enforcement interacts with people with mental illness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL SHARPTON: This boy wasn't hurting nobody. He had a sickness, an illness. And if you were not equipped or trained to deal with the illness, then you should not have showed up to answer the call.

SUMMERS: The Reverend Al Sharpton joins me now. Welcome back, sir.

SHARPTON: Thank you.

SUMMERS: You delivered a striking eulogy for Irvo Otieno yesterday. And I'd like to begin by asking you, did you have the opportunity to spend some time before delivering that eulogy with his family? What did you learn about him?

SHARPTON: I did talk with his mother and his brother. And they told me that he was very artistic, wanted to build a record company - we played a video during the services where he had done a rap song - and that he was one that was very honest and open about his mental health illness but that he was not going to let that debilitate him. They kept asking me to make sure I emphasize that.

SUMMERS: I mean, this is a family that, understandably so, is still grieving and grappling with loss. But I wonder, in your conversations, have they expressed to you what they hope might come of this moment and this tragic loss? Are there any changes that they hope to see?

SHARPTON: Yes. The mother, Caroline, said she would like to see a law that would deal with how you handle the question of mental illness where law enforcement doesn't necessarily kick in but it kicks in with people that are trained in the medical health field. So we are stressing that, and I called on that yesterday because remember that Governor Youngkin is being touted by some to be a presidential candidate. And so we've called on him to come forward and deal with the possibility of a law to deal with all of this.

SUMMERS: That's right. You called on Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia by name, and we should note he has not yet declared that he would run for president. But I'm curious. In this moment of mourning but also a moment that you used as a call to action, why specifically shine a light on Governor Youngkin there in Virginia?

SHARPTON: Because health services is under the auspices of the governor. And as he tries to build a national reputation, he needs to deal with a real tragedy right there in Virginia. How he operates on this tragedy will tell those of us around the country a lot about him. You're talking about an unarmed, non-threatening, young Black man who was handcuffed and shackled while these people piled on him to where they literally choked the life out of him. The governor ought to respond with more than sympathy. He ought to respond with some action and legislation where this can't happen again.

SUMMERS: Reverend Sharpton, over the years, you have spent time speaking with and ministering to so many families like this one that find themselves thrust into a national spotlight that they did not ask for after their loved ones were killed in encounters with law enforcement. Do you give them advice on just how to survive and reckon with the place that they find themselves in?

SHARPTON: Well, we try to give them full services because I think that people don't realize nobody signed up to be the next victim or the next family member of a victim. I chose to do what I do. I been doing it all my life. They didn't choose this. They have no experience. They have no media training. They don't know how to vet all the different people coming to them and how you separate those that are just coming to get attention or those that are really going to stay with the family, help the family. I am talking to families now that - I've worked on their situations 30 years ago. And the media is gone, and then sometimes the community has calmed down. But they will never be the same.

SUMMERS: Though the details of these cases, these incidents are different and every person is different, you have been in this position of speaking with these families, of giving eulogies like the one you gave this week, time and time again for people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, just recently Tyre Nichols in Memphis. It's an unfortunate long list. And I'd like to ask you, why do you feel it is so important to keep standing at the pulpit, to keep delivering these eulogies, to keep ministering to these families and to a nation who have questions about how and why these people lost their lives?

SHARPTON: It's important to me, one, because we built an organization, a civil rights organization, that this is one of the things - voting rights and criminal justice reform are the tenets we built National Action Network on. But the personal side of it is I come out of, you know, Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., raised by a single mother on welfare with food stamps. I see a person laying in that casket. That could be me in that casket. That could be my daughter or my grandson, and I'm going to speak for them because somebody would have had to speak for me.

SUMMERS: We're at a moment where there is continued stalemate, continued failure of passage of federal legislation. So I'd like to ask you, when you talk with these families about the potential for legislative change, what do you tell them about the timing? How do you - I have to imagine if you were a mother who has lost their child, this has got to be exhausting year after year, day after day.

SHARPTON: I tell them the truth - that we can't bring your child back, but we can certainly raise your child's situation and your situation to where there's meaning. There's meaning, and your child could be a symbol that we cannot continue to let this happen. And I tell them, I can't promise you when it's going to happen on the federal level, but I can promise you that we'll be there until it happens.

SUMMERS: The Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you so much for joining us again today.

SHARPTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.