EW YORK (AP) — Eric Garner was a familiar figure on the streets near Staten Island’s ferry docks: to his friends, a congenial giant with a generous gesture or a calming word; to police, a persistent face of the small-time crime of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Garner’s last run-in with police spiraled into a confrontation in which an officer applied an apparent chokehold, leaving the married father of six dead and police tactics under scrutiny. And it left some who knew him wondering why such conduct was used against a man they describe as a neighborhood peacemaker.
“That’s the ironic part about it. He’s the most gentle of everybody over there,” friend Irvine Johnson said.
Public anguish over Garner’s death kept building Monday, as a small group of demonstrators gathered outside City Hall to demand the police commissioner’s resignation. Medical examiners were working to pinpoint the cause of Garner’s death, prosecutors and police internal affairs detectives were investigating officers’ conduct in the encounter, and the Fire Department was probing paramedics’ and emergency medical technicians’ actions. Four EMTs who responded to the call were suspended without pay pending the investigation, Richmond University Medical Center said.
Garner, 43, whose friends called him “Big E” and “Teddy Bear,” had a son starting college, five other children and two grandchildren, and a quarter-century-long relationship with his wife, Esaw. He’d had had a couple of temporary jobs with the city Parks Department in recent years, most recently helping with horticulture crews and maintenance in 2013.
He was among a diverse group of regulars on a block that serves as a gathering point for day laborers seeking work and local residents passing time. Police say it’s also a hot spot for complaints about what they term quality-of-life offenses — such as bicycle-riding on sidewalks, open containers of alcohol and loud noise — which are a centerpiece of Police Commissioner William Bratton’s approach to keeping crime in check. The area has spawned about 100 arrests, 100 summons and 650 calls to 911 so far this year.
When officers approached Garner last Thursday, he protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong and police were harassing him, according to a friend’s video, obtained by the Daily News. The video shows an officer putting his arm around the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Garner’s neck as Garner was taken to the ground and his face was pushed into the sidewalk. Before losing consciousness, he was heard to yell repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!”
Garner had suffered for years from asthma, sometimes wheezing when he talked, friends and relatives said. He walked slowly on sore feet, sometimes untying his shoes to relieve the pressure, said Johnson, a handyman.
While Bratton has called Garner’s death a tragedy and noted that investigators will determine whether officers acted appropriately, he also underscored that officers “met resistance” in trying to arrest him.