Friends: Man in NYC Chokehold Case ‘Gentle Giant’


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 kept building Monday, as a small group of protesters outside City Hall demanded Police Commissioner William Bratton’s resignation for what they call a racial incident.

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 marriage with his wife, Esaw. He’d had a few temporary jobs.

Garner 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 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. A 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, he noted that officers “met resistance” in trying to arrest him. “I do not expect my officers to walk away from that type of situation,” he said.

Garner had had plenty of experience with police: He’d been arrested 31 times since 1988. But if he was frustrated with police, he was also known as an even-tempered, good-natured presence in the area — “His last penny was your last penny,” friend Jonathan DeGroat put it.

Garner often defused tensions, pulling people aside to talk them down from confrontation, friends said. Ramsey Orta, who shot the video of Garner’s encounter with police, said Garner had broken up a fight shortly before police arrived.

“He had a hug and a smile for everybody,” said Jennifer Rotwein, who works nearby. “He was always trying to keep the peace.”