I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi

In 2014, Eric Garner died after a police officer put him in a 'chokehold' during an arrest for selling bootleg cigarettes. Matt Taibbi's I Can't Breathe tells the story of a man whose last words became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement

I Can't Breathe by Matt Taibbi

There was an irony to the fact that Eric Garner eventually found himself making a living on the streets of Staten Island selling smuggled cigarettes. He was a symbol of the borough’s bizarre history

Staten Island was once the home of the world’s largest landfill, an artificial mountain of filth that in the seventies and eighties began growing to fantastic dimensions. Fresh Kills, named for a nearby estuary, opened in 1947 but over the decades became a sore point for the mostly white citizens on the south side of the island, where all of that garbage from Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens was unloaded.

Many of Staten Island’s residents were middle-class white people who had fled to the distant borough from Brooklyn and Queens when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then the world’s largest suspension bridge, opened in 1964. Coincidentally, New York was ravaged by race riots that very year, after the shooting of a black teenager named James Powell by a white police officer. The fleeing white New Yorkers departed for Staten Island to get away from what locals to this day still euphemistically describe as “city problems.” (“Come to Staten Island and you can still live in New York City without the ‘city’ problems!” is how the Staten Island Advance recently described the borough’s pitch to potential residents.)

But having escaped the city itself, the new arrivals were still on the hook for those problems, at least when it came to paying taxes. The landfill therefore had enormous symbolic significance for many white Staten Islanders. They felt like they paid more than their fair share of taxes and got to babysit the troubled city’s stinking trash for their trouble. Their resentment was real, as palpable as the smell of the city’s largest dump.

So by the time 1993 came around, white Staten Island voted as a bloc to help elect Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’d run on a law-and-order platform. Already “law and order” was proving to be a euphemism for something else. Rudy had been a successful prosecutor and portrayed himself as a friend of the police department and enemy of crime—but he’d proven himself among outer-borough white New Yorkers with stunts like marching with a mob of protesting police officers who burst across barricades and rumbled through lower Manhattan denouncing the city’s then mayor, a black man named David Dinkins (“The mayor’s on crack!” protesting cops chanted). The “law and order” candidate, in other words, wasn’t so hung up on law or order, not exactly. But to the white ethnic voters who’d deliver him the mayoralty, he’d proven that he would take their side in a fight and put their enemies—the black and brown people who’d driven them to the outer boroughs and even taken over City Hall—back in their place.

After the election, Giuliani closed the Staten Island dump down and began sending thousands of tons of New York’s garbage not to other white neighborhoods in the city but to the people of Virginia. Hilariously, Giuliani told Virginians they owed it to New York to take its garbage because Virginian tourists took in New York’s great musicals and museums. We bless you with our culture, you take our garbage, that’s the deal. It was, the mayor said, a “reciprocal relationship.”

Virginia reciprocated the relationship all right. When New York imposed the country’s highest cigarette taxes under its next mayor, Michael Bloomberg, adding almost six dollars per pack to retail prices within the city, smugglers began heading to other states. Virginia and other low-tax states of the South began flooding New York with cheap smokes brought in by canny street arbitrageurs, who undercut New York’s tax laws one illicit trunkful at a time.

Eric Garner became one of those smugglers. He had several employees and regularly sent mules on runs to Virginia, where they filled their trunks with wholesaled cartons. He was shrewd with money and ran a tight ship. Fifty dollars plus expenses is what he supposedly paid his drivers. They never got caught and brought hundreds of cartons back to Staten Island every few months.

In Virginia, Garner was paying around five dollars a pack. In New York, the highly taxed cigarettes sold legally in stores at about fourteen dollars a pack. The low-tax policies of the South instantly created a booming pseudo-criminal trade in cities like New York, but that didn’t seem to bother the southern pols who Giuliani had once insisted should be thankful for New York’s great stage shows. Despite repeated calls from inside the state and out to raise cigarette taxes to help end the smuggling problem, the government of Virginia, for instance, would continually refuse to raise taxes by even a symbolic amount.

Garner would split the difference and sell packs for around nine bucks. And sometimes he would sell individual cigarettes, known as loosies, upping the profit margin even more—two for a dollar, a rate of ten bucks per pack. He sold a variety of brands in cartons and packs, but loosies were almost always Kools or Newports. It was a feature of the Garner brand.

When he sold loosies, he was always reaching into a pocket with those same fingers he had just used to wipe his runny nose with, then handing over the cigarettes. The dopers and wine-heads who were many of his customers would hesitate, then look up at the unsmiling big man and quickly take his cigs before he changed his mind. Garner’s friends often doubled over laughing watching these transactions.

Garner was six foot three and weighed 350 pounds. He was serious and formidable to look at, but few people on the street had ever seen him truly angry. The one exception was when another young cigarette seller, also named Eric, called him “Big Dummy.” It was a nickname from Sanford and Son some of Garner’s friends used to throw at him to try to get a rise out of him.

He took the abuse from friends, but this younger Eric wasn’t enough of a friend to get away with it, and when he tried, Garner went nuts. He took off after the kid but didn’t get very far. Once a great athlete, Garner couldn’t run anymore. Out of breath on sore feet, he gave up the chase.

In addition to the fact that he was well liked and rarely known to raise his hand to fight, there are two things the people on Bay Street almost all say about Eric Garner. They say he loved football, and he had a tremendous head for numbers.

Garner could calculate the price of six different cigarette deals simultaneously and never be off by a cent. He was a little like the Harlem bookmaker from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, West Indian Archie, who never wrote a number down because he could keep them all in his head. Eric Garner’s skill ran in the family: Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, can rattle off addresses and phone numbers of distant relatives from fifty years ago.

His facility with numbers went well with his love of football. Garner was the kind of person who studied sports statistics like a rabbi studying the Talmud. If you asked him how many receptions Amani Toomer had in 2002, he wouldn’t hesitate.

“Eighty-two,” he’d say. “And for thirteen hundred and forty-three yards.”

“He’d throw some number at you, and you’d be like, ‘Uh-uh, fuck that, that can’t be right,’ ” says one of his close friends, a tall street hustler from Brooklyn named John McCrae who spent months and years standing on the corner next to Garner. “And he’d look at you and with that deep voice of his, he’d say, ‘Google that shit.’ ”

McCrae laughs at the memory. Almost everyone who knew Eric Garner does an Eric Garner impersonation. He had a unique voice. Some impersonations are more convincing than others. McCrae has clearly worked hard on his. He adjusts his voice downward to Teddy Pendergrass levels.

“Google that shit.” McCrae laughs again. “And then you’d google it, and he’d be right every time. Motherfucker was always right. You couldn’t win an argument with him.”

McCrae remembers another story. It was early May 2014. The name of Eric Garner was just over two months away from becoming known around the world. McCrae was standing on Bay Street with Garner when a figure came around the corner.

It was Ibrahim Annan, moving slowly with his walker. McCrae raised an eyebrow. Everybody on Bay Street knew Annan, the music man. McCrae himself knew him pretty well but hadn’t heard from him in a while. He stared at the walker.

“B, man, what the fuck?”

“Cops beat me up,” Annan said.

Annan stayed for a while and told his story of being stomped and choked and kicked. He even pulled out his cellphone to show an X-ray picture of his splintered ankle. Heads shook all around. McCrae and Annan both remember Garner listening to the story.

After a few minutes, Annan shook hands with everyone and moved on.

“Shit is fucked up,” McCrae said to Garner.

Eric Garner nodded, staring off into the distance. He had other things on his mind.

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