Eric Garner was a 43-year-old father of six and grandfather of two. The tall, 400-pound man, who was known around his Staten Island neighborhood as a “gentle giant” nicknamed “Big E,” was approached Thursday outside a New York City store by a group of NYPD officers who accused him of selling contraband cigarettes. “I didn’t do shit!” Garner can be seen telling cops in a video of the incident. “I was just minding my own business.”
“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me,” he added. “I’m tired of it … Please just leave me alone!”
Cops say they saw Garner selling cigarettes outside the store. Other witnesses, however, said he’d just finished breaking up a fight. He had no cigarettes on him, nor in his car, his family told the Daily News.
But the officers didn’t leave Garner alone. Instead they tried to arrest him. Visibly upset at what was unfolding, Garner resisted. “Don’t touch me,” he said.
It’s then that an officer can be seen in the video putting Garner — who suffered from chronic asthma, sleep apnea and diabetes — into a tight, illegal chokehold. Garner falls to the ground, where, numerous times, he tells officers he can’t breathe.
Officials say Garner has a history of arrests for selling untaxed cigarettes. In the coming days and weeks, conflicting reports about the circumstances leading to Garner’s death will likely surface. But even if Garner had prior charges and even if he resisted arrest on Thursday, he’ll never have a chance to defend himself.
There will be anger. Rallies. Posters and T-shirts featuring Garner’s face. Memorials. Statements by politicians. Lawsuits.
It’s a familiar course of events. NYPD officers have a long history of killing unarmed individuals. They’re rarely punished for their actions. And the majority of their victims, like Garner, are black men.
Earlier this week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of James Powell, a 15-year-old black student who was shot and killed by a white police officer outside a Harlem apartment building. Powell’s death sparked a series of riots across the country in what came to be known as the “long, hot summer.”
As City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams pointed out in a statement following Garner’s death, not much has improved since then. “Garner joins a list that every male of more color in New York City knows they are a candidate for and every mother of more color dreads,” he said.