STATEN ISLAND, NY — A man died following a brutal arrest in which NYPD choked him and slammed his head against the sidewalk. Police say they suspected him of selling cigarettes without government permission.
The violence occurred on July 17th, when NYPD officers approached Eric Garner, 43. Late that afternoon, witnesses said that Garner, described as a “gentle giant,” was standing on the sidewalk and had played peacekeeper by breaking up a scuffle between two parties.
But police weren’t interested in taking a report about the fight.
NYPD was evidently investigating one of New York’s most egregious crimes — face-to-face cigarette sales on the sidewalk. With New York City’s oppressive “sin taxes,” packs of smokes cost as much as $12 to $14 each. Mr. Garner had in the past been arrested for selling cigarettes for 50 cents apiece. NYPD believed that he was doing it again.
“Every time you see me you want to mess with me,” Garner told NYPD. “I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
“Why you touching me? I didn’t sell anything!” Garner insisted. “I was breaking up a fight,” he added. Witnesses corroborated the account.
“[Garner] tried to break up the fight — the two guys fighting, they saw the cops coming and walked away,” said Valencia Griffin, who saw the confrontation. Mr. Garner was the only one still on the sidewalk moments later when the police walked up.
Garner’s objections were not taken kindly. Five officers abruptly rushed him and commenced their assault. One cop proceeded to wrap his arm around Garner’s neck in a choke hold, causing the large man physical distress and obstructed breathing. Garner’s head was slammed against the sidewalk, a cell phone video indicates.
“All I kept hearing from him was, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,'” recalled Ms. Griffin. “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 Taisha Allen, who saw the confrontation. “I saw saliva and blood coming out the side of his mouth. It was awful that something like this had to happen.”
“When he was on the ground, they kept holding him by the neck,” witness Gordon Benson recalled. “He just gasped and then stopped moving.”
Upset onlookers gathered around after witnessing the choking. One officer shooed them back, ironically telling the crowd, “Please try to give him some air.” Garner was then carted away on a gurney and pronounced dead.
Later that evening, NYPD’s press office released the following statement:
“On Thursday, July 17, 2014 at approximately 1648 hours, police observed a 43-year-old male selling untaxed cigarettes in front of 202 Bay Street within the confines of the 120 Precinct. Upon attempting to arrest the suspect for the violation, the suspect went into cardiac arrest and was transported by EMS to Richmond University Medical Center where he was pronounced DOA. The Medical Examiner will determine the cause of death. The investigation is ongoing.”
“I saw him with his eyes wide open and I said, ‘Babe, don’t leave me, I need you.’ But he was already gone,” said his wife, Esaw, who is the mother of their six children.
“When I kissed my husband this morning, I never thought it would be for the last time,” she told NY Daily News.
Officials seem to be preparing to cast this off as a death from natural causes, yet it is impossible to argue that Mr. Garner would have died that afternoon had he not been assaulted by five government agents. Needless deaths like Mr. Garner’s should never happen, because voluntary transactions and entrepreneurship should not be criminal offenses in the first place. This tragedy reminds us that all laws, big and small, are ultimately backed with violence and can claim lives needlessly.
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UPDATE #1: The New York City Medical Examiner has declared Eric Garner’s death a homicide, NBC reported, and that the chokehold employed by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was the cause of death.
The medical examiner added that contributing factors in Garner’s death were his chronic asthma, obesity, and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
Eight-year NYPD veteran Officer Pantaleo along with four EMTs were suspended following their handling of Mr. Garner.
UPDATE #2: On December 3, 2014, a grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, meaning that there will be no criminal prosecution for Eric Garner’s killer.
“I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the video tape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn’t indict for anything, is really just astonishing,” attorney Jonathon Moore told the Associated Press.
UPDATE #3: In July 2015, one year after Eric Garner’s homicide, the City of New York reached a settlement with the victim’s family, to the tune of $5.9 million. The mayor offered a few conciliatory remarks, but has failed to fire brutal NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who has been sued on three separate occasions — besides Garner’s death — for violating civil rights. Garner’s family intends to pursue federal civil rights charges.