The New York Police Department treated 43-year-old Eric Garner like some kind of vicious criminal who needed to be subdued, choked and dragged to the ground in the middle of the sidewalk.
But friends and family say the man who died Thursday at the hands of the NYPD was a kind soul, a “gentle giant” and “great dad” who tried to make a few bucks selling loose cigarettes in his Staten Island neighborhood of Tompkinsville.
“This guy was nobody’s drug dealer. He doesn’t drink liquor. He doesn’t do drugs. What he does is he sells cigarettes,” the Rev. Lloyd Land, pastor of the First United Christian Church, told SiLive.com. “He sells cigarettes, 50 cents apiece. That’s how he makes a living.”
He added, “He was a gentle giant. Insofar as violence, I don’t believe if you smack him in the face he would hit you back … The police have no reason to attack him.”
The video of Thursday afternoon’s incident, taken by bystanders, shows police officers dragging Garner to the ground in a chokehold even though he posed no threat to the officers or anyone else. Garner reportedly suffered from asthma.
Indeed, Garner was trying to discern what it was that he had done wrong. Garner had been arrested many times for selling looseys, called “untaxed cigarettes” by the police, but according to bystanders that’s not what was going on Thursday. They say Garner had actually just broken up a fight when several officers descended upon him.
Garner, who was well over 6 feet tall and more than 350 pounds, refused to put his hands behind his back, so the officer put him in a chokehold, bringing him down. Garner can be seen on the video trying to crawl away, but the officer wouldn’t let go.
“All I kept hearing from him was, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,'” Valencia Griffin told the Staten Island Advance. “He never fought back — he didn’t know why they were arresting him.”
“The cops slammed him to the ground and threw the handcuff on him,” said another witness, Taisha Allen. “I saw saliva and blood coming out the side of his mouth. It was awful that something like this had to happen.”
Allen added, “He [Garner] was the one who broke up the fight.”
Jewel Miller, the mother of Garner’s 3-month-old baby, called him “a great dad.”
“He’s just a warm guy,” she told SILive.com.
Miller said she and Garner were separated, but he remained a loving father to his daughter, who was born prematurely.
“He was so proud of his daughter — she’s his miracle,” Miller said.
He was known around the neighborhood as “Big E,” a warm man who always had a kind word.
“Everybody that knows him will tell you that he’s a wonderful person,” said Charlene Thomas, 64, who used to work in a deli a few stores down from where Thursday’s incident occurred.
“I would hug him every day. He was like a big teddy bear,” she said.
Neighborhood residents had already set up a memorial with candles and signs outside of the store where he died.
Media reports indicate Garner was out on $4,000 bond or $2,000 cash bail, with three pending criminal cases against him. They all involved the possession and sale of untaxed cigarettes. In August, police also charged him with aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle, false personation and marijuana possession.
Holding their 3-month-old, Legacy, in her arms, Miller appeared at the scene of Garner’s death Thursday night.
“I can’t believe he’s gone — his daughter has to grow up without a father now,” she said, adding that he was always willing to help his six children or anyone else, despite his chronic health problems such as asthma and narcolepsy.
“You can ask him for anything — he helped so many people in so many different ways,” she said. “I lost my best friend.”
As the District Attorney begins a probe into the circumstances of Garner’s death, the Rev. Al Sharpton will be joining Garner’s family Saturday in Staten Island to demand answers.