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date: 05 July 2020

Garner, Eric free

(15 Sept. 1970–17 July 2014),
  • Caryn E. Neumann

A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.

a street merchant who died at the hands of police during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes, was born in New York City to Gwen Carr and her husband. He grew up in the Gowanus Houses, public housing projects in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. Described by friends as a genial, generous, neighborhood peacemaker, Garner completed his education at Ohio Diesel Tech Institute in 1988. Garner met his wife, Esaw “Pinky” Garner, in the 1980s on a telephone party line, an early version of a chat room. The couple raised six children and had two grandchildren.

Garner had a history of arrests for marijuana possession and selling untaxed single cigarettes. He typically worked from the corner of Bay Street and Victory Boulevard in Staten Island, where he sold bootleg cigarettes at $7 a pack and 75 cents for single cigarettes, or “loosies.” New York City places a tax on each box of cigarettes with the stated aim of using the tax as an incentive to persuade people to stop smoking. The city also requires a retail license as well as New York State registration for those selling more than 400 cigarettes. Selling “loosies,” as Garner did, is a misdemeanor.

On the date of his death Garner broke up a fight between men on Bay Street in the Tomkinsville section of Staten Island. Police officers then arrived. At 4:45 pm, several officers approached Garner, known on the street as “Big E.” Garner complained that police officers were harassing him whenever they saw him. Garner, weighing 350 pounds and standing 6 feet 5 inches, then got into an altercation with Police Officers Daniel Panaleo and Justin D’Amico in front of a beauty supply store at 202 Bay Street. The exchange of words escalated into a faceoff. Pantoleo, a New York City Police Department officer with eight years of experience grabbed Garner around the neck and pushed him to the ground. Soon after Garner died of a fatal heart attack. His last words—which would feature in subsequent protests—were “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” He was pronounced dead at Richmond University Medical Center in West Brighton.

Much of the altercation between the police and Garner was captured by an amateur photographer, Ramsey Orta, a friend of Garner's. A grand jury convened in late October 2014 to review the evidence and consider bringing charges against the police officers. When the film became public, a large outcry resulted and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio labeled Garner's death as a tragedy. The mayor also sent his condolences via Twitter to Garner's family. Community activist Reverend Al Sharpton led a number of vigils while calling for justice. On 21 July 2014 the city suspended without pay the four emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics from Richmond University Medical Center who had treated Garner. Contrary to standard procedure, they did not supply Garner with supplementary oxygen or put an airway into his mouth. One EMT took Garner's pulse but did nothing more before he was loaded into an ambulance. Officer Justin D’Amico went on desk duty, with Office Pantaleo placed on modified duty that required him to relinquish his service gun and badge. On 1 August 2014 medical examiners released a report concluding that Garner died from compression of the neck as well as compression of the chest and prone positioning while his hypertensive cardiovascular disease, obesity, as well as acute and chronic bronchial asthma were additional factors. He had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Garner's funeral service was held on 23 July at Bethel Baptist Church in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn before a large crowd of mourners, including his mother, wife, and children. Garner's family filed a $75 million lawsuit against New York City, the New York City Police Department, and six New York City police officers, which was settled by the city for $5.9 million in July 2015.

A Richmond County (Staten Island) grand jury reviewed the evidence against the police and decided not to indict. The lack of an indictment, coming on the heels of the Michael Brown furor in Ferguson, Missouri and the shootings of several other black males by police, created a national furor and sparked demonstrations throughout New York City. National Basketball Association players in the city, including a number of stars such as the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, wore “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts before games in protest. The US Department of Justice opened an investigation into the case in December 2014 to investigate whether Garner's civil rights were violated. The investigation was ongoing as of September 2015.

Further Reading

  • Barkan, R. “De Blasio Promises ‘Fair and Justified Outcome’ After Garner Death Ruled Homicide.” New York Observer, 1 Aug. 2014.
  • Jonsson, Patrik. “Eric Garner Ruled Victim of Chokehold ‘Homicide’: Should a Grand Jury Indict?” Christian Science Monitor, 2 Aug. 2014. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2014/0802/Eric-Garner-ruled-victim-of-chokehold-homicide-Should-a-grand-jury-indict-video.
  • Kane, Robert J., and Michael D. White. Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department (2012).
  • Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law (1998).
  • Marzulli, John, et al. “A Deadly Drag Net: S.I. Cigarette Sellers Targeted ‘A Man Named Eric’ on Police Radar.” New York Daily News, 7 Aug. 2014.
  • Rivoli, Dan, et al. “No Indictment in Eric Garner's Death Sparks Demonstrations.” amNewYork, 4 Dec. 2014.