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Tragedy of Eric Garner's death brings some progress

Thousands of people, including Garner's family, marched in

Thousands of people, including Garner's family, marched in Washington, D.C. in a "Just for All" demonstration. "I'm here not only marching for Eric Garner," said Garner's widow, Esaw Garner. "I'm marching for everybody's sons, everybody's daughters, nieces and nephews, dads and moms. . . . Let's keep it strong, long and meaningful." The Associated Press estimated that about 25,000 protested.

Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams

After NYC settled with the estate of Eric Garner, who died a year ago today, his mother, Gwen Carr, said the $5.9 million was "not a victory."

Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who subdued Garner with an apparent chokehold banned by his department, remains behind an NYPD desk after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict him in December. A top police union official said the payout "rewarded" Garner's family, and was "abusing the trust of hardworking, taxpaying citizens." It was a stark reminder of the disconnect between law enforcement and the communities it serves.

Still, much has changed in a year.

The video of Garner being forced to the ground by a swarm of NYPD officers after he resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes catalyzed a national conversation on the criminal justice system. His last words -- "I can't breathe" -- became a rallying cry for protesters decrying biased grand juries and heavy-handed law enforcement, especially in communities of people of color.

Pantaleo had been targeted in two civil rights lawsuits before Garner's death -- one was settled for $30,000 -- raising the issue of how much a cop can cost taxpayers before losing his or her job. Garner's death was the first inflection point in the policing debate over a year filled with them: Ferguson, North Charleston and Baltimore, to name a few.

Police departments nationwide, including the NYPD, are rethinking tactics on minor crime and steadily outfitting officers with body cameras that may help expose injustice, if not prevent it.

Conservatives and liberals in Congress are finding common cause in a push to reduce mass incarceration, particularly for nonviolent drug arrests. House Speaker John Boehner has said he hopes to see a bipartisan reform package -- the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act -- reach the floor for a vote. And President Barack Obama on Thursday became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, driving the discussion on race, class and law enforcement like none of his predecessors.

These changes will not make up for the personal loss of the Garner family. But they are steps in the right direction.