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Friends: Eric Garner was a ‘gentle giant’

Eric Garner, right, poses with his children during a family outing in an undated photo. (AP Photo/Family photo via National Action Network)
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Eric Garner is a household name for reasons every black family dreads: He was killed by a white police officer — Joe Pantaleo, who put him in an apparent chokehold in July.

But to family and friends, Garner was more than just a symbol — or the latest unarmed black man to die at the hands of American police. Here’s what’s known about the 43-year-old father of six from Staten Island:

Garner was 6’3″ tall and weighed 350 pounds. His asthma forced him to quit his job as a horticulturalist for New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation. His friends told the New York Times he had diabetes and sleep apnea, and that he wheezed when he spoke.

His youngest daughter, Legacy, was three months old when Garner was killed. “He was a great dad — he’s just a warm guy,” Jewel Miller, Legacy’s mother, told the Staten Island Advance. Legacy was born prematurely. “He was so proud of his daughter — she’s his miracle,” Miller said.

His neighborhood friends called him “Big E.”

“Everybody that knows him will tell you that he’s a wonderful person,” Charlene Thomas told the Advance. “I would hug him every day. He was like a big teddy bear.” Thomas said she knew Garner because she used to work in a deli not far from where he was killed in the Tomkinsville neighborhood.

Garner’s pastor described Garner as a “gentle giant,” as did Christopher Pisciotta, a Legal Aid attorney who represented him.

But it’s been widely reported Garner had been arrested more than 30 times, including several times for selling unlicensed cigarettes, or “loosies.” The arrests go back to the 1980s — for assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny, according to the Wall Street Journal. According to the Advance, when police stopped Garner, he had three pending criminal charges against him for holding or selling loosies. In August 2013, he was charged with aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle, false personation and marijuana possession.

“This guy was nobody’s drug dealer,” Rev. Lloyd Land of First United Christian Church told the Advance. “He doesn’t drink liquor. He doesn’t do drugs. What he does is he sells cigarettes.” He added:”He sells cigarettes, 50 cents a piece. That’s how he makes a living. 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.”

Garner filed a handwritten complaint in federal court against the NYPD in September 2007. Garner accused an officer of conducting a cavity search on the street after he volunteered to go to a police station for the officer to conduct a strip search because he had “nothing to hide.” “My request was ignored,” Garner wrote.

Instead, Garner wrote in the complaint, the officer placed him “in handcuffs and then performs an cavity search on me by ways of ‘digging his fingers in my rectum in the middle of the street.'” According to the Advance, Garner also wrote the officer unzipped his shorts and inspected his genitals while people passed by on the street. Garner wrote when he informed the officer he was filing a complaint against him for violating Garner’s civil rights, the officer added drug charges to the arrest record.


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