Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case 'gentle giant'

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Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case 'gentle giant'
Esaw Garner, center, wife of Eric Garner, breaks down in the arms of Rev. Herbert Daughtry and Rev. Al Sharpton, right, during a rally at the National Action Network headquarters for Eric Garner, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in New York. Garner, 43, died Thursday, during an arrest in Staten Island, when a plain-clothes police officer placed him in what appeared be a chokehold while several others brought him to the ground and struggled to place him in handcuffs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: Richard Watkins (5) attends a vigil for Eric Garner near where he died after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island last Thursday on July 22, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. The funeral for Garner is planned for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: Johanna Fuentes (10) draws a message for Eric Garner near where he died after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island last Thursday on July 22, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. The funeral for Garner is planned for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement near the site of his death, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The wife of a man who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor. Eric was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Mourners pay their respects at the funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Julia Xanthos-POOL/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19: People participate in a demonstration against the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on Thursday on July 19, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a news conference yesterday that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19: People participate in a prayer during a demonstration against the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on Thursday on July 19, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a news conference yesterday that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A member of the congregation holds a young child as Rev. Al Sharpton addresses the congregation at Manhattan's Riverside Church in New York, Sunday, July 20, 2014. Sharpton demanded justice in the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Ellisha Flagg, left, sister of Eric Garner, cries during a service at the Mount Sinai Center for Community Enrichment for Eric Garner, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The wife of Garner who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor. Garner, who was black, was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Members of the congregation applaud during a guest appearance by The Rev. Al Sharpton at Riverside Church in New York, Sunday, July 20, 2014. Sharpton talked about the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island, demanding justice for Garner's death. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 18: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio exits a news conference after addressing the recent death of a man in police custody on July 18, 2014 in New York City. The mayor has promised a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island yesterday. A 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a conveinence store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rev. Al Sharpton makes a point during Sunday morning service Sunday, July 20, 2014, at Manhattan's Riverside Church in New York. Sharpton addressed the congregation about the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island, demanding justice for Garner's death. Sharpton also said that citizens who kill police officers should be held accountable. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Rev. Al Sharpton, front left, and members of Eric Garners family march towards the site of his death following a service held in his name at the Mount Sinai Center for Community Enrichment, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The wife of a man who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor. Eric was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 18: New York Police Commissioner William Bratton prepares to speak to the media at a news conference with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to address the recent death of a man in police custody on July 18, 2014 in New York City. The mayor has promised a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island yesterday. A 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a conveinence store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The Rev. James Forbes, left, senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church, greets activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, during the Sunday morning service Sunday, July 20, 2014, at Riverside Church in New York. Sharpton spoke about the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island, demanding justice for Garner's death. Sharpton also said that citizens who kill police officers should be held accountable. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Rev. James Alexander Forbes Jr., Senior Minister Emeritus walk accompany each other at the conclusion of a worship service at Riverside Church in New York, Sunday, July 20, 2014. Sharpton was the guest preacher at Sunday morning services, during which he spoke to the congregation about the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island three days ago. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Reverend Al Sharpton addresses the crowd during the funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Julia Xanthos-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: A woman rests her head on her arm during the funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Julia Xanthos-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Esaw Garner receives a hug during a funeral service for her husband Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by James Keivom-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: A child holds up a sign outside of the Bethel Baptist Church before the funeral for Eric Garner on July 23, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes on July 17th. Garner's death has set off a wave of protests in the city and is being viewed as a test for de Blasio and his more liberal approach to policing New York's streets. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rev. Al Sharpton addresses the congregation during the Sunday morning service Sunday, July 20, 2014, at Manhattan's Riverside Church in New York. Sharpton demanded justice for the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island. Sharpton also said that citizens who kill police officers should be held accountable. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: A growing memorial is viewed for Eric Garner near where he died after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island last Thursday on July 22, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. The funeral for Garner is planned for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19: People participate in a prayer during a demonstration against the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on Thursday on July 19, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a news conference yesterday that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rev. Al Sharpton makes a point during the Sunday morning service Sunday, July 20, 2014, at Manhattan's Riverside Church in New York. Sharpton addressed the congregation about the apparent police chokehold death of Eric Garner, who died three days ago in Staten Island, demanding justice for Garner's death. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Emerald Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, mourns at the site of her father's death on a march following a service held in his name at the Mount Sinai Center for Community Enrichment, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The wife of a man who died after a police officer used an apparent chokehold to bring him to the ground during an arrest burst into tears Saturday at a Harlem rally in his honor. Eric was confronted by police trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed, loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19: People participate in a demonstration against the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on Thursday on July 19, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a news conference yesterday that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Mourners gather during a funeral service for Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Garner died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, James Keivom, Pool)
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By RACHELLE BLIDNER and JENNIFER PELTZ

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.

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 medication technicians' actions.

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."

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