The 6-foot-3, 350-pound gentle giant called Big E lay in a dove white suit in a dove white coffin, as was fitting for a peacemaker in a world of abuse and strife.
Eric Garner was never known to raise his hand to his wife or his six children. He was always known to break up a fight at one of the nightclubs where he worked security and on the streets of his adopted borough of Staten Island.
The 43-year-old had just broken up a fight by a pocket park near the Staten Island ferry on July 17 when two plainclothes cops approached him. They had apparently responded to a report of a dispute, but it was over by the time they got there.
With no real crime in evidence, they decided to arrest Garner for selling “loosies,” single cigarettes, most likely out of an untaxed pack. Loosies are generally bought by cigarette addicts who have trouble affording a whole pack at the taxed rate.
Down in Florida, a jury in a civil case brought by the widow of a lung cancer victim was about to find a cigarette company liable for $23.6 billon in damages. But nobody in the tobacco industry faces arrest for knowingly marketing an addictive product that kills people by the hundreds of thousands.
Up in New York, Garner had been repeatedly arrested for making a couple of bucks by selling loosies. He had come to feel that the police were harassing him and he insisted that he had not been selling anything on this latest occasion. He may have been particularly exasperated because he had just been texting with his wife about dinner. She had told him she was cooking pork chops. He had replied that he would be home early.
He now faced being arrested yet again for what seemed like nonsense.
“This ends now,” he declared.
Garner became the Gandhi of loosies, offering only the most passive resistance as the police moved to arrest him. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in what looked like a chokehold, which is specifically prohibited by the NYPD patrol guide.
Pantaleo continued to apply the hold after he and his partner had brought Garner down. Pantaleo and his partner and other officers who piled on all seemed deaf to the words the lifelong asthma sufferer Garner repeated again and again, words that were written on T-shirts worn by some of the mourners attending Wednesday night’s funeral at Bethel Baptist Church in his native Brooklyn.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
The funeral no doubt would have been a much smaller event with little public notice were it not for a video shot by a 22-year-old named Ramsey Orta, who was welcomed with applause when he was called to the pulpit during the service.
“He said, ‘This is wrong, I’m going to video it!’” Rev. Al Sharpton told the mourners.
Sharpton might have also praised Ken Murray, an old school New York Daily News photographer who got wind of the video. The Daily News posted the footage and subsequently obtained an internal NYPD report prepared before the police became aware of the video’s existence. One sergeant is quoted saying that Garner “did not appear to be in great distress.” Another is reported saying, “The perpetrator’s condition did not seem serious and that he did not appear to get worse.”
The truth was in Orta’s video and one result was Police Commissioner William Bratton stripping Pantaleo of his gun and badge and launching an investigation and announcing that the entire department would undergo retraining as part of an effort to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
Another result was a line of TV news trucks and a scrum of photographers outside the funeral as the church filled to overflowing. Those in attendance included the families of two young men who had been unarmed when they were shot to death after police officers imagined they saw a gun.
In Garner’s case, death seems to have come not as a result of fear, but as a result of indifference. Sharpton spoke of the moment they had all seen in the video when Pantaleo kept Garner in a headlock despite his pleas.
“When does your decency kick in?” Sharpton asked. “When does your mortality kick in? You don't need no training to stop choking a man saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Sharpton spoke of a second video posted by somebody else on YouTube. It shows officers and paramedics in the minutes after the arrest doing nothing to save the unconscious Garner. Pantaleo can be seen giving a little wave to the camera.
“We shouldn’t act as though we should be here tonight,” Sharpton told the mourners. “This occasion is an occasion that should never have been in the first place.”
Garner’s wife of 27 years, Esaw “Pinky” Snipes Garner, had also come in dove white, with a silk turquoise top to match her husband's shirt of the same hue. She slumped as their 18 year-old son, Eric Jr., escorted her up to the open coffin.
“My God, they took him, they took my baby,” she wailed.
Eric Jr. will be entering college in the fall and his father’s last words to him had been about how proud he was of his son. Eric Jr. now helped his sobbing mother over to the front pew and his equally grief-stricken paternal grandmother, Gwendolyn Carr.
Carr is a subway train operator and her daughter is a New York City bus driver. Her son had gone to Automotive High School and then Ohio Diesel State University and he had worked happily as a car mechanic before breathing difficulties necessitated him finding another line of work. He was a bouncer at many of the city’s top nightclubs before his health further deteriorated and he took to selling loosies. He had been the least violent of lawbreakers and nobody could have foreseen that he would suffer such a death.
“My son, my son, I love him so,” Carr now cried.
Toward the end of the funeral, Garner’s 90-year-old aunt, Katherine Williams, spoke briefly, recalling a family gathering on the Fourth of July.
“We had a beautiful time,” she said.
She then announced she was going to sing a bit of what “is not a sad song.” The mourners clapped along.
“When you hear about my homecoming, don’t worry about me…”
One of Garner’s daughters also spoke, saying that the hardest part was the approach of her own daughter’s birthday.
“My father never missed a birthday,” she said “The only thing my daughter wanted was for her Pop-Pop to bring the cake. I don’t know how I’m going to explain to her that her Pop-Pop won’t be bringing the cake.”
The packed church had grown steamy with the approach of a summer storm. There were flashes of lightning outside and the rumble of thunder. A few tear-sized raindrops were followed by a suddenly heavy downpour as the family inside stepped up for a last farewell.
The rain had all but ceased when Big E’s dove white coffin was carried out, the gentle giant’s size requiring 10 pallbearers rather than the usual six. A mourner called out the words that were on the T-shirts, the words that should have caused the cop to loosen that forbidden hold, words that had been spoken with the desperate hope that somebody would surely listen.
“I can’t breathe.”
Those who watched the coffin loaded into the gleaming black hearse included Garner’s sister, the bus driver Ellisha Flagg. She had earlier offered a terse description of how her asthmatic brother had come to die.
“He didn’t die because he stopped breathing on his own,” she said. “Somebody took his breath away.”