NEW YORK, July 18 (UPI) -- An asthmatic 43-year-old father of six died while being choked by NYPD officers Thursday. His last words were "I can't breathe;" onlookers recorded video.
Father of six children, grandfather of two, Eric Garner, a middle-aged, six-foot-four, 400 pound man described by those who knew him as a "gentle giant" and "a big teddy bear," suffered from chronic asthma and cried out "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" after officers put him in a choke hold and slammed his face to the ground.
Plainclothes police say they observed Garner selling untaxed cigarettes, say he had been arrested for it before, and this is why they confronted him.
In a video of the incident obtained by the New York Daily News, Garner -- who complained of a history of being harassed by the NYPD -- tells the officers, "I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today!"
But reinforcements arrive, and despite bystanders telling the NYPD Garner had not been selling cigarettes, despite Garner himself repeating he has done nothing wrong and asking police repeatedly: "Please leave me alone," while backing his large frame away from conflict, a second plain clothes officer sneaks behind Garner and attempts to restrain him without asking for cooperation.
Garner resists saying, "Don't touch me, please."
The officer at his rear places him in a choke hold from behind and four other officers force the "gentle giant" to the ground, four officers climb on top of the "big teddy bear," one forces his head into the pavement with two hands, smothering the life out of him even as he says, "I can't breathe."
Police ignored the protests of onlookers who insisted Garner had done nothing wrong and had in fact just broken up a fight.
The Huffington Post offers this excerpt from a 2004 NYPD Patrol Guide:
"Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokeholds. A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to, any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air."
The NYPD officially declared that Garner "died of a heart attack while being taken into custody."
Mayor Bill De Blasio released this statement:
"On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Garner, who died yesterday afternoon while being placed in police custody. We have a responsibility to keep every New Yorker safe, and that includes when individuals are in custody of the NYPD. That is a responsibility that Police Commissioner Bratton and I take very seriously. We are harnessing all resources available to the City to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the circumstances of this tragic incident. The NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau is working closely with the Office of the Richmond County District Attorney, which is leading this investigation."
"When I kissed my husband this morning, I never thought it would be for the last time," Garner's wife, Esaw, told the New York Daily News. "I saw him with his eyes wide open and I said, 'Babe, don't leave me, I need you.' But he was already gone."