NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
In this undated family photo provided by the National Action Network, Saturday, July 19, 2014, Eric Garner, right, poses with his children during during a family outing. Garner was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound Garner became irate, denying the charges and refusing to be handcuffed before one of the officers placed him in what Police Commissioner William Bratton said appeared to be a chokehold, according to partial video of the encounter obtained by the New York Daily News. (AP Photo/Family photo via National Action Network)
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 over Garner's death kept building Monday, as a small group of demonstrators gathered outside City Hall to demand the police commissioner's resignation. Medical examiners were working to pinpoint the cause of Garner's death, prosecutors and police internal affairs detectives were investigating officers' conduct in the encounter, and the Fire Department was probing paramedics' and emergency medical technicians' actions. Four EMTs who responded to the call were suspended without pay pending the investigation, Richmond University Medical Center said.
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 relationship with his wife, Esaw. He'd had had a couple of temporary jobs with the city Parks Department in recent years, most recently helping with horticulture crews and maintenance in 2013.
He 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 Police Commissioner William 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, according to a friend's video, obtained by the Daily News. The 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 and noted that investigators will determine whether officers acted appropriately, he also underscored that officers "met resistance" in trying to arrest him.
"I do not expect my officers to walk away from that type of situation," Bratton said Friday.
Garner had had plenty of experience with police: He'd been arrested 31 times since 1988 on charges including drug possession, assault and selling untaxed cigarettes, according to police. He was facing two open untaxed-cigarette cases, plus a third case in which prosecutors dropped that charge but were still pursuing unlicensed driving and marijuana possession charges stemming from an August 2013 car stop, court records show.
He was fighting them all, his attorneys said.
"He repeatedly told us that he felt he was targeted and harassed by the police, and he wasn't going to take any pleas," said Christopher Pisciotta, the senior supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society's Staten Island criminal defense practice.
But if Garner was frustrated with police, he was also known as an even-tempered, good-natured presence in the area — "Staten Island's biggest godfather," as friend Jonathan DeGroat put it. "His last penny was your last penny."
Garner often defused the tensions that sometimes flare on the block, 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 at a tattoo parlor nearby. "He was always trying to keep the peace."
Associated Press writers Jake Pearson and Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.