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Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death

On July 19, a memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement near the site of his death in Staten Island. (John Minchillo/AP)
On July 19, a memorial for Eric Garner rests on the pavement near the site of his death in Staten Island. (John Minchillo/AP)

Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK (The New York Times) — Eric Garner was lumbering along a sidewalk on Staten Island on a July day when an unmarked police car pulled up.

The plainclothes officers inside knew Mr. Garner well, mostly for selling untaxed cigarettes not far from the nearby Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

Mr. Garner — who at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 395 pounds was hard to miss — recognized them, too. Everyone did, at least among those who hawked cigarettes and cheap goods on that stretch of Bay Street along Tompkinsville Park. For years, they played a cat-and-mouse game with the New York City officers who came to arrest them.

As the officers approached, Mr. Garner, 43, shouted at them to back off, according to two witnesses. He flailed his arms. He refused to be detained or frisked. He had been arrested twice already that year near the same spot, in March and May, charged both times with circumventing state tax law.

But on that sweltering day in July, the officers left him with a warning.

The next time came later that month: July 17, a Thursday.

One of the officers, Justin Damico, returned, accompanied by a different partner, Daniel Pantaleo. As they moved in, a cellphone camera held by a friend of Mr. Garner recorded the struggle that would soon be seen by millions.

The chokehold. The swarm of officers. The 11 pleas for breath.

Mr. Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for a protest movement. On screens large and small, his last struggle replayed on a loop. Official scrutiny and public outcry narrowed to focus on the actions of a single officer.

But interviews and previously undisclosed documents obtained by The New York Times provide new details and a fresh understanding of how the seemingly routine police encounter began, how it hurtled toward its deadly conclusion and how the police and emergency medical workers responded.

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