About the Book
About the Author
Also by Matt Taibbi
Title Page
Part I Life and Death on Bay Street
One Ibrahim
Two Pinky
Three Pedro
Four John
Five George
Six Jewel
Seven Numbers
Eight Eric
Part II The Perpetual Injustice Machine
Nine Erica
Ten Dan
Eleven Carmen
Twelve Jimmy
Thirteen Daniel
Fourteen Ramsey
Fifteen Ibrahim
Sixteen Erica


On July 17, 2014, a forty-three-year-old black man named Eric Garner died in New York after a police officer put him in a ‘chokehold’ during an arrest for selling bootleg cigarettes. The final moments of his life were captured on video and seen by millions – his agonised last words, ‘I can't breathe,’ becoming a rallying cry for the nascent Black Lives Matter protest movement.

Matt Taibbi, bestselling author and ‘the best polemic journalist in America’, tells the full story of the man who inspired a movement – neither villain nor victim, but a fiercely proud individual determined to do the best he could for his family. Featuring vivid vignettes of life on the street, this powerful narrative of urban America is a riveting work of literary journalism and a scathing indictment of law enforcement in the twenty-first century.

I Can’t Breathe tells the story of one man to tell the story of countless others, and the power of people to rise up against justice.


MATT TAIBBI, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, The Great Derangement, and Insane Clown President, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2008 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary.

Twitter: @mtaibbi


Insane Clown President

The Divide


The Great Derangement

Spanking the Donkey

I Can’t Breathe

To the family and friends of Eric Garner, who told his story with love.

To Clementine Russ, who is still waiting.

Rock the V-Gooses, everything we wore was name brand Sold three loosies, just to get on call plan …





Bang bang bang!

At about 2:45 P.M. on April 2, 2014, on a drizzly afternoon in Staten Island, New York, an aspiring music producer in his late thirties named Ibrahim Annan was sitting in his car when a noise outside startled him.

“Open the fucking window!”

Tall and slender, with a slim mustache, Annan, known as Brian or B or Bizzy B to his friends, was the son of two devout Muslim Ghanaian immigrants. On this afternoon, he was parked on private property, a muddy driveway in front of a friend’s apartment building. The noise came from the driver’s side of his spiffily maintained 2011 Toyota Camry.

Annan looked up and saw a white man with a hoodie obscuring most of his face, rapping on the window.

Bang bang bang!

“Open the fucking window before I break your fucking arm!”

Annan looked past his dashboard and saw another figure standing at about ten o’clock, also dressed in street clothes. This one was aiming a gun at him.

Annan froze. He was a regular visitor to this address, 100 Pierce Street, on the northern side of the island. It’s a dull three-story apartment building, nestled in a sleepy mixed-race neighborhood of run-down one-family homes. He had a key to an apartment there belonging to his friend, a local DJ known as Icebox International. The two sometimes mixed music inside. He would later say he was there that day to visit his friend on the way back from the post office.

The police version of this story is different. They say Ibrahim Annan pulled into the parking spot and began ostentatiously playing around in his front seat with a giant baggie of weed, which they would describe in a criminal complaint as a “ziplock bag of marihuana.”

This “ziplock bag” in the complaint was described as being “open to public view.” By unsurprising coincidence, New York City police are not supposed to arrest people for marijuana possession unless the subject is “publicly displaying” the drug. If you’re carrying it or even smoking it in private, it’s just a ticket. But at the time, tens of thousands of New Yorkers were criminally arrested for pot possession every year, which either pointed to an epidemic of exhibitionist drug use or a lot of iffy police reports.

Bang bang bang!


A dependable rule of thumb in police brutality cases is that the worst incidents are triggered by something the suspect says. A lot of these episodes are already running hot before they fully erupt. They often start with the police tackling someone, putting a knee in his or her back, hurling obscenities (to be fair, sometimes in retaliation for obscenities thrown at them). So it doesn’t take much to raise the collective temperature beyond the bursting point. An F-bomb or two will usually do it.

Annan yelled back: “Get a fucking warrant!”

Boom! The inside of Annan’s car exploded with glass as the officer in the hoodie used something—a nightstick maybe?—to shatter the driver’s-side window. At the hospital later on, Annan would have glass fragments removed from his eyes.

Annan turned his face to the right to avoid the impact. But when he opened his eyes, he was immediately struck on the left side of his face with what he thought was an ASP, a kind of telescoping metal baton used by police all over the country.

Another policeman had opened the passenger-side door and was also striking him repeatedly with something. He heard the impact of steel on his skull before he felt it.

Meanwhile the original officer in the hoodie was yanking at his seat belt. The Toyota dealership would later have to replace the seat belt lock, which is designed to withstand car accidents. It was broken and ripped loose in the struggle.

After more than twenty blows to his face and head, Annan was pulled from the car and thrown to the ground. A police cruiser had driven up beside his car, and he was now facedown in the mud and glass, obscured in a narrow spot between two vehicles. Annan says he screamed for bystanders behind the cars to reach for their cellphones.

“Film them!” he screamed. “Film them!”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Film them!”

Hands pulled behind his back, Annan felt a set of cuffs go on. Officers were raining blows down on him from all angles. He detected a strange sensation in his left leg and tried to protest.

“Yo, hey, the ankle cuff is too tight!” he gasped.

“What are you talking about?”

“The cuff on my ankle! It’s too tight!”

In fact, there was no cuff on his ankle. Annan’s left leg had been stomped on repeatedly, broken in three places, the damage so severe he would still be walking with a cane more than a year later.

Annan tried to focus. He looked down at the mud in front of him. The blows were coming so furiously that he began to worry that he would die here, in this coffin-sized space between two cars.

His legs and wrists were throbbing and now he also felt something, a hand maybe, sliding under his neck, preparing maybe for a headlock. In his panic he felt himself losing air and spoke three words destined to become famous in another man’s mouth.

“I can’t breathe,” he said.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m serious. I can’t breathe!”

One of the officers answered him: “You can fucking talk, you can fucking breathe.”

In the ambulance a few minutes later, Annan was beside himself. He looked at his mangled left foot and nodded at the officer.

“Where do you live?” he shouted. “Identify yourself!”

The cop shook his head. Annan says he then leaned forward and punched Annan in the face.

The EMT in the front of the vehicle said nothing and kept driving.

The borough of Staten Island would later charge Annan seven hundred dollars for the ambulance ride.

Ibrahim Annan was well known to the staff of the Richmond University Medical Center. He and his sister both suffered from sickle cell anemia and had come there regularly for treatment their whole lives.

Now Annan was pushed through the door of the ER on a gurney. He was shouting, hysterically, at the top of his lungs.

“They attacked me and broke my leg! Don’t let them hurt me! Don’t let them hurt me!”

“Shut up,” one of the officers muttered.

Annan’s gurney was moved to a private room. Inside, the hospital staff implored him to keep his mouth shut. He was eventually handcuffed to his bed and then wheeled off to a far corner of the ER.

Much later in the evening, after word of his detention had finally reached his family, Annan’s youngest sister, Mariama, wandered through the emergency room, looking for her brother.

Mariama caught a glimpse of him from afar, his face bloodied and his leg smashed. “I had never seen him like that before,” she said. “It was awful.”

The police wouldn’t let her or anyone else in the family visit him or even learn exactly what had happened, so she had to steal a glance from a distance.

“The incident completely changed the way I think about everything—the government, the police, everything,” she said later. “I didn’t trust the nurses because they were following the police instructions. I was afraid to leave him there with any of them.”

Annan’s parents also tried to get access to Ibrahim. It took more than a full day and multiple trips back and forth to Staten Island’s infamous 120th Precinct before the two slow-moving, elderly Africans were finally given a pass to see their son. As immigrants they had a poor instinct for the uglier nuances of American culture and were puzzled by every part of the process.

The deal for the pass had been brokered by Mariama. She recalls pleading with a desk sergeant at the 120th Precinct, an outpost that had for decades been the subject of horror stories within the island’s nonwhite community, who refer to it darkly as the “One Two Oh.”

On the street in certain parts of Staten Island, people believe the 120 is where they send all the reject cops from other precincts, especially the ones with too many abuse complaints. The precinct jailhouse in particular has a terrible reputation for, among other things, its smell and poor ventilation. Even hardened criminals go the extra mile to try to avoid landing there, even for a night.

Mariama remembers the moment when she got the pass. She was standing in the precinct with her two parents when finally, the desk man shook his head and sighed.

“Okay, I’ll give them a pass,” he said. “But only because they’re fucking old.”

Mariama nearly fainted.

“I was afraid for my parents,” she said later. “They were shocked by the language. These are elderly, proper people. They could have had a heart attack.”

After a bedside arraignment in the hospital, Ibrahim Annan faced a litany of charges: menacing, criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree, obstructing government administration, unlawful possession of marijuana, assault in the second degree, and assault in the third degree, among others.

Annan’s family later hired a tall, sharply dressed African American lawyer named Gregory Watts. He would grumblingly describe the charges of assaulting the police.

“They smashed the guy’s car window, and one of them got a little cut after they beat his ass up,” he said. “That’s the assault.”

The last charge was criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree. The police explanation for that charge is that when they banged on Ibrahim Annan’s car window, the accused responded by holding up a lighter and an aerosol can and shouting at armed police from inside a closed vehicle, “IF YOU OPEN THE WINDOW I’M GOING TO BURN YOU.” The officers used all caps in the complaint. Annan would later claim he never even read that part of the charges. “I said what?” he asked, incredulous.

The long list of charges slapped on Annan were part of an elaborate game police and prosecutors often play with people caught up in “problematic” arrests. A black man with a shattered leg has a virtually automatic argument for certain kinds of federal civil rights lawsuits. But those suits are harder to win when the arrest results in a conviction. So when police beat someone badly enough, the city’s first line of defense is often to go on offense and file a long list of charges, hoping one will stick. Civil lawyers meanwhile will often try to wait until the criminal charges are beaten before they file suit.

It’s a leverage game. If the beating is on the severe side, the victim has the power to take the city for a decent sum of money. But that’s just money, and it comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. The state, meanwhile, has the power to make the losses in this particular poker game very personal. It can put the loser in jail and on the way there can take up years of his or her life in court appearances. As Annan would find out, time is the state’s ultimate trump card.

Annan was in the hospital for more than three weeks. His ankle had to be reconstructed surgically.

When he finally went home, he was mostly immobile. It was spring outside, and he missed seeing the weather turn warm.

Feeling better one day in the beginning of May, however, he decided to get some fresh air. With the aid of a walker, he went outside and headed down toward Bay Street, near the water.

The big man in the doorway saw everything. He knew this part of the island like the back of his hand. Anything in this little crisscrossed city block that looked or felt out of place, he registered instantly.

If you judged this man by his clothes, you missed a lot. He looked a mess from the outside. He’d change T-shirts every day, but the giant XXL sweatpants were often the same smudged and stained pair from the day before. The big man suffered from sleep apnea and chronic allergies, which left his nose constantly running. A hundred times a day or more, he’d wipe his nose with his fingers, then wipe his fingers on those sweatpants.

Eric Garner’s one recent concession to fashion was a pair of shell-toe Adidas sneakers, made iconic in New York by Run-DMC, a band he was crazy for as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. His sneakers were huge—size 16—and yet still too small for him, because he also suffered from diabetes and his swollen feet spilled out of his shoes.

One of his friends on the street called him “Elephant Foot.” But it really wasn’t that funny. The swelling from his illnesses left him in constant pain, which was a problem because his job required him to stand in place, rain or shine, hot summer or biting winter, for as much as ten or twelve hours a day.

His usual place of work was on a little stretch of Bay Street, on Staten Island’s North Shore. He spent most of his time there, circling a small triangular patch of trash-strewn grass called Tompkinsville Park. The park, which used to be nicknamed Needle Park, contains a dozen or so benches, a big red brick public toilet building long ago locked up by authorities, and a view of New York’s Upper Bay. On most days it’s also home to a collection of dope fiends, drifters, crack-heads, and alcoholics. They come here to hang out, get high, drink, argue, and trash-talk.

Just a hundred yards or so from this crowd, on the water side of the park, sits a new fifty-seven-unit condominium complex bearing the absurdly pretentious name “The Pointe at St. George.”

“The Pointe” is part of a major Staten Island renewal project called the Bay Street corridor, an ambitious plan to invest nearly a billion dollars in a string of high-end residential buildings that would dot the waterfront leading to the Staten Island Ferry. A two-bedroom unit at the “luxury, full-service” condo complex sells for half a million dollars or more. A nice starter home for an entry-level Wall Street hustler, perhaps, who wants a water view at night and doesn’t mind reading the Financial Times on a morning ferry ride to downtown Manhattan.

The condos looked like great investments but for one thing: the view across the street. Needle Park is an old-school New York street hangout—not too dangerous, but visually rough around the edges and definitely way too black for anyone who’d spend a half-million dollars to spell “Point” with an “e.”

When this place was just a straight-up shooting gallery in the early 2000s, police hardly ever came by. But now that the park was on the edge of a billion-dollar real estate investment, the police were always coming around, mixing it up with the park’s denizens over one thing or another. Nickel-and-dime stuff, mostly, what the police call “quality of life” arrests: drinking from open containers, peeing on the sidewalk, disorderly conduct.

Garner caught a significant share of that extra police attention, which grated on him. But he wasn’t really part of the wine-and-dope crowd at Tompkinsville. It’s more accurate to say he was in the service industry catering to that group. He sold tax-free cigarettes there, and he was good at it.

He’d arrived in Staten Island years before, an ex-con fresh out of prison on crack charges, and he didn’t have a way to feed his kids. After struggling to find a square job, he broke down and at first considered selling drugs again. But those doors on Bay Street were closed at the time, so he turned to something a little less dangerous and a little more entrepreneurial.

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.


Bored again?

Interested in a new way to meet people?

Just pick up the phone and dial … 1-976-8585! … IT’S THE PARTY LINE!

In the summer of 1987, a young woman with high cheekbones and long, ropelike black hair picked up the telephone. She was striking, and of mixed race, with a father who was Native American and a mother who was black and Jewish. Her name was Esaw, but everyone called her Pinky.

The story went that when she was born, the doctor was confused by the little girl’s light skin and narrow eyes. He asked Esaw’s mother, “Is the father Oriental?”

Her mother quipped, “No, but I ate Chinese food last night.”

Mama Snipes was a performer who would still be doing raunchy stand-up comedy into her nineties. She looked down at her daughter’s pink skin and what she called her “chinky” eyes and called the child Pinky.

Pinky was in an apartment on Twenty-Second Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood when she picked up the phone to call the Party Line that night. This was before the Internet, before chat rooms. The goofball TV ads for party lines were just about the most visible thing on the air in New York the late eighties, second only maybe to the schlock electronic-store ads put out by famed pitchmeister and con man “Crazy” Eddie Antar. The chat line wasn’t expensive. It was a flat rate, three dollars per call. You could talk all night if you met someone.

Pinky put her ear to the phone.


A deep voice answered. “Yeah, hello. How are you?”

“I’m all right. How are you?”

“I’m good.”

“What’s your name?”

“Eric. What’s yours?”


Eric said hi again. Things were going well, but then Pinky asked, “Eric, how old are you?”

“Eighteen.” He was not quite seventeen.

“And I thought, ‘He’s too young,’” Pinky recalls today. “So I said, ‘Next!’ and left him behind.”

She moved on and talked to a few more guys on the line, but none of them impressed her. There were even a few racist chatters, she remembers. “They were idiots,” she says now, laughing. “So I said, ‘Eric, are you still there?’”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Well, you can take my personal number, and we can talk on our personal line.”

Eric Garner brightened and took Pinky’s number and called right back. He was living at his grandmother’s high-rise apartment in the Coney Island Houses at the time. He always spent holidays and summers at his grandmother’s project home near the famed beachfront amusement park.

He stayed on the phone with Pinky Snipes for hours that night, talking about all sorts of things, but mostly about his family. He spoke about his mother and about how, without his father in the house (Elliott Garner had died when Eric was five), he felt like he had to be the man in the place, the disciplinarian. He had a brother and a sister and also lived with two young cousins whose parents had died and who had moved in with Eric’s mother.

“He talked a lot about that, about feeling the responsibility, being responsible before he was responsible, if that makes sense,” she says. “He’d tell his little sister to do something, and she’d say, ‘You’re not my daddy!’ And he’d say, ‘But I’m your big brother. You’ve got to listen to me.’”

There is a story in family legend that Eric’s little sister, Ellisha, once had a boy call the family’s Brooklyn apartment while she was still in elementary school. Eric took the phone and hung up on him. When she ran to complain to her mother (“Eric hung up on my friend!”), her big brother snapped back.

“You shouldn’t have boys calling you,” he said. “You’re still seeing a pediatric doctor!”

Eric went on and on to Pinky that night, about things that interested her and things that didn’t. He talked about cars. He wanted to be a mechanic and talked about going to a technical school in Ohio to study diesel engines.

Pinky for her part talked a little less. She didn’t tell Eric right away that she had a baby daughter named Shardinee, or that she was several months pregnant with another child, from a man she’d already broken up with.

Their conversation went on so long that Eric’s grandmother intervened. “Get off the phone!” Pinky heard her shouting.

Finally he said, “I want to take you on a date.”

“Well,” Pinky said, “I have a child.”

Eric didn’t hesitate. “Then we’ll go somewhere kid friendly,” he said.

Pinky didn’t spend much time preparing for their first date. She met him straight after a shift scooping ice cream, her nine-month-old daughter in tow.

“I was working at that time at a Häagen-Dazs in Grand Central Station,” she remembers. “So I had on a red Häagen-Dazs sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. When I get off the train at Coney Island, here comes Eric in dress pants, a dress shirt, and nice shoes.”

She told Eric she didn’t expect him to be so dressed up.

“I wanted to make a good impression,” he told her.

They went to the kiddie park at Coney Island. It was a warm evening and you could smell the ocean. They took her baby, Shardinee, on all the rides: the pony carts, the jumping motorcycles, the fire engines, and the dizzy dragons. After a little while Pinky got bored with the kid stuff. She decided to take Eric on some rides she wanted to go on, starting with the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Eric Garner as a teenager didn’t yet have the health problems he would have later in life. He wasn’t overweight. But he was a big, imposing man, six foot three, well over two hundred pounds. And he was afraid of the Tilt-a-Whirl.

“I was shocked,” Esaw recalls. “Big as he was, he was scared as hell of those rides. I convinced him to go on the Ferris wheel, and you know how they have the carts that swing and the carts that are still? He wanted to sit in one of the still ones.”

She laughs. “I said, ‘No way.’ We got in the swinging one, and the whole way up, he was wailing like a bitch. I’m serious, he was like, ‘I want my mommy!’ And I said, ‘Big as you are, you’re crying for your mother?’”

Still, she liked him. And she liked the way he was with her daughter. Eric Garner, by all accounts, from people who knew him as a young man and as an older one, was good with kids. Next to his love of football, it’s the one thing almost everyone who knew him mentions.

Eric liked Pinky. Esaw says she was the first girl he ever brought home to his mother. Eric’s mother, Gwen, was on her guard.

“She’d heard rumors that I was twenty-five and had three kids,” Esaw recalls now. “And I said, ‘No, I’m twenty and I have one.’”

Eric was still in high school when they met. Esaw remembers helping Eric with a paper that he wasn’t terribly interested in writing. “It was something about Christopher Columbus, the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria,” she says. “Something about Columbus and the three boats.”

They separated for a while after that summer. Eric said he was going away to technical school in Ohio. Pinky was getting ready to have her baby. Eric asked if he could check in on her after she delivered. She said yes.

In January 1988, Eric called.

“What did you have?” he asked.

“A girl,” Pinky said. “Her name is Dorothy.”

They started seeing each other again. Eric had given up on technical school and was trying his hand at different jobs at the time. One was as a security guard at an A&P on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, a few blocks from Pinky’s place. One time, she remembers, one of her neighbors knocked on her door with a surprise.

“Pinky,” she said. “There’s a cop downstairs to see you.”

“A cop?” she said. “What cop?”

She went downstairs and there was big, lumbering Eric, in his security guard uniform. “That was the cop,” she says, laughing.

She fell for him. “It was the way he accepted me and my daughter,” she says. “That’s why I fell in love with him.”

They got married on August 26, 1989, and went on to have four children. Erica was born in 1990, then came Emerald in 1991. Eric Jr. was born in 1994, and the youngest boy, Emery, was born in 1999.

One of the first places they lived was 2359 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. It’s an eccentric choice of location for a young family, right across the street from the Bronx Zoo. And not just any part of the Bronx Zoo, but the elephant cage. Kids love zoos, obviously, but there were other factors.

“We had the pleasure of smelling elephant dung for years,” she said. “I used to fill the place with Renuzit packets just to try to fight the smell. All those years, we never once took the kids to the damn zoo.”

It wasn’t a perfect marriage, but in a weird way Esaw and Eric were a fit, personality-wise. Pinky was direct and had inherited her mother’s sharp tongue. When she felt he needed it, she would get in Eric’s face.

Garner, on the other hand, was a big fan of the path of least resistance. Although he liked to argue for fun, real confrontation was something he typically tried to avoid. Even as a child, he never talked back to his mother, preferring to wait her out rather than take her on. “Eric never, ever raised his voice at me, he never talked back to me,” his mother recalls. She laughs. “In his mind, I guess he said, ‘I wish she would shut up so I can get on doing what I got to do.’”

In the early years, they had what seemed on the outside like a pretty normal family life. Throughout most of his younger years, Eric Garner worked square jobs. After the security guard job he worked at the Greyhound terminal at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Pinky remembers coming down from the Bronx on Eric’s pay-days, bringing little Erica in a baby carrier and holding her two little girls, Shardinee and Dorothy, by the hand. They’d meet up at Eric’s job and then go out to Sizzler together. “Sizzler was a big thing back then,” she says. “It was a family tradition.”

Eric was a pretty good mechanic, but his skills became outdated quickly. “He was really good, until they came out with computerized cars,” Esaw says. “He was lost in the computers.”

Later, when the family moved away from the elephant cage to Brooklyn, Eric supposedly got another job, this one with the help of Pinky’s mother, whose day job was in quality control at a pharmaceutical company. Garner, too, was there for a short while, until, she says, he took a nap during a break one day and didn’t wake up in time to go back to his shift. He was fired.

Years later, Garner’s friends on the streets of Staten Island would tell stories about how he worked such long hours on the street that he would sometimes fall asleep standing up. To this day, people on Bay Street do affectionate impressions of the great man snoring on his feet.

There was a reason why Garner was tired. He had a second life apart from the straight pharmaceutical job.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat shit,” Esaw says. “He was a drug dealer.”

Eric Garner hadn’t grown up wanting. His mother, Gwen, was a hardworking and dedicated woman who put in long hours first for the telephone company, then later for the post office, and ultimately as a subway operator. Throughout Eric’s childhood, there had always been food on the table, shoes on his feet.

But Garner wasn’t even nineteen when he married a woman several years his senior with two children to feed, who also happened to have a taste for clothes and nice things. The reality of his financial situation at that moment hit the teenage Garner like a tidal wave. How did people live?

He knew that other kids in the neighborhood where he grew up were making lots of money dealing drugs and through other hustles, but Eric Garner had a problem. He wasn’t a natural criminal.

According to family legend, right around the time he got married, Garner planned to commit a burglary. He targeted a pizza place in his neighborhood. But when he actually broke into the place at night, he went into the kitchen and cooked himself a pizza instead of going straight for the cash. He ended up starting a small fire and fleeing without a dime. That, legend has it, was the end of his career as a burglar.

Much later on in life, he would tell his kids that he turned to dealing crack cocaine at that time out of necessity. It was easy, it was there, and it was what everyone else did. And once he began to have his own children with Esaw, it became a way of life. He stopped questioning it.

“Eric didn’t give a fuck,” Esaw puts it bluntly. “He had kids and was going to make the money.”

Eric may have watched his mother work from the time he was born, but from a young age he also became accustomed to being the man of the house, an archaic role even then, and tried to impose a patriarchal ideal onto his marriage that never quite existed in his childhood. He wanted to be the family breadwinner, which meant he didn’t want his wife working outside the home. The implicit deal was that he would take care of the money while she would take care of him. In some ways, this worked out well because Esaw herself didn’t particularly want to work.

“He didn’t want me to have to work,” Esaw says. “So I never had to.”

When it came to how he was making his money, Eric made the drug dealer’s usual argument. “You’re against me selling drugs, but you don’t mind spending the money,” he’d say.

Esaw was paralyzed by that logic. “It was like a catch-22,” she says. “I enjoyed the money, but the risk wasn’t worth it. I told him that no matter what, he was never going to get rich doing this, that he would most likely end up dead or in jail.”

And it’s true, he didn’t get rich from selling drugs, but over the years, Eric’s family began to accumulate nice things. There was expensive furniture in the house and the kids would be dressed to the nines on the first day of school.

And they drove nice cars. Eric had a lifelong fondness for Cadillacs. He had a gorgeous tan one in the nineties, with a hood so long his kids remember not being able to see to the end of it from inside the car.

Garner didn’t work out on the street, at least not that his family observed. What they saw of his business was in little glimpses before a bedroom door slammed shut. Garner loaded raw product into vials and from time to time would get paged. He would slip out, quietly, and make a delivery. Sometimes he’d be gone for more than a day. Back at home, he would load and unload money and product into a safe that nobody was allowed to watch him open, although the kids were sometimes instructed by Pinky to try to catch the combination.

He was making real money. But around that same time, he began to develop a quirk in his personality, one that would become a defining trait when he was a middle-aged man. Apart from the car, he spent all of his money on his wife and children, to the point where he wouldn’t buy himself even the most basic things. He began, slowly, to ignore himself.

“Your sneakers have holes,” Esaw would say.

“Yeah, but the kids need this and that.”

“That’s fine, but you can get yourself a pair of sneakers,” she’d say.

But he’d tune her out and keep wearing the shoes with holes in them. Even his pants started to deteriorate.

“In the nineties, he had one pair of jeans,” Esaw remembers. “They were split from the right knee up to the crotch. Believe me when I tell you, he wouldn’t throw those away.”

Garner began to develop a mania for saving. He had little piles of money stashed in different places for different things. He would keep cash in the soles of sneakers, in holes in walls, in the trunks of cars. He became phobic about spending and scrupulous about the way he played the drug game.

“He never spent his re-up,” is how his wife puts it. In other words, he never touched the money he needed to buy the next package of drugs.

Garner for the most part was mild mannered and soft-spoken. But he had a few sensitive spots, and one of them was his family. As Esaw remembers it, the one thing that was guaranteed to get her husband truly angry was implying that he wasn’t a responsible father. Eric was part of a generation of young black men for whom the worst insult was to be called a deadbeat, a word often thrown at black men of his father’s generation by white politicians, including New York’s own Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. These politicians and social scientists in the mid-sixties began to point fingers at the unemployed black male as the root of much inner-city evil. “Deadbeat dad” was the counter to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” an insult that cut to the core, and Garner would have none of it.

“You could say anything to him, but if you called him a deadbeat dad, he’d go crazy,” Esaw says. “He’d say, ‘I take care of my kids! I’ll take care of them from a jail cell!’”

As it turned out, he had to do exactly that. On July 13, 1994, Garner got arrested for selling crack cocaine. Even though it was his first serious offense, and there was no violence in the charge, he was sentenced to eighteen months to three years.

When Garner went away to prison, he and his wife fought. Their phone calls were tense.

“One time, I was crying,” Esaw remembers. “I said, ‘Babe, I’m out here, I’m alone, I don’t have any money.’

“And he said, ‘Baby, calm down. Go in the bathroom.’”

Esaw had noticed that the medicine cabinet looked separated from the wall, but she hadn’t given it a second thought. Now Eric told her to move the medicine cabinet and stick her hand in the hole.

There was five thousand dollars in cash inside.

The money lasted awhile. But soon there was nothing left but promises and letters from jail.

After Eric came home from that first stint in jail, the family moved around for a while. Finally they settled for a time in a tough section of Brownsville, New York, in a little green four-story building on Mother Gaston Boulevard, between Liberty and East New York Avenues. The neighborhood landmarks were a junk pile in the alley next to the apartment building and a tire shop on the corner. There was a nearby public pool that stank of urine and was ringed with leering men out for a glimpse of little girls in bathing suits.

The building’s stoop, situated behind a gate, was where people sat, smoked cigarettes, hung out, and sometimes drank a little, day and night.

The family spent much of the late 1990s and early 2000s in this spot, and it was a complicated time for them, filled with pain and tragedy, but also some powerful memories of a group of people who stuck together through the toughest of situations. What the Garner kids—four now, from preschoolers to middle schoolers—experienced there was a parody of family life. For instance, sometimes Eric would get up and announce he had to go to “work.” All of his kids who were old enough to walk—Erica, Emerald, their little brother Eric Jr., sometimes even Esaw’s daughter Shardinee—would wrap their arms around Garner’s ankles, thighs, and arms and beg him not to go. They riffed on a running joke from the TV comedy Martin about Martin Lawrence’s friend Tommy, who was always pretending to go off to a job he didn’t have.

“You ain’t got no job!” they’d say.

But it was no good. He was so big, he’d just drag all the kids with him out the door, where they’d reluctantly turn him loose to the world.

While Eric was home, the family had enough money for small luxuries—furniture, electronics, cars. But by now he was in and out of jail often, and the family’s fortunes waxed and waned with his presence. When he went away, all of the material things would vanish.

The kids, for instance, all had TVs in their own rooms when Eric was home. When he went away to jail, the TVs would get sold and all of the kids would have to pile into Mom’s room to watch cartoons. Sometimes the kids would come home and watch their family furniture being moved out, like the sofa that his daughter Erica remembers being relocated to the apartment of the drug dealer up the hallway.

When Garner wasn’t incarcerated, he loved to be home, a sometimes fatal flaw in his line of work. If hustling drugs is a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job, Garner was short a day or two every week. The streets were where he reluctantly dragged himself to make money. On Sundays he didn’t like to budge from the couch and would frown if anyone walked in front of the game on television. And he would not miss holidays with his children, a trait passed down from his mother, who always got away from work to celebrate the holidays with her family when Eric was a kid.

Esaw remembers one particular Halloween when they were living in East New York. The neighborhood had become too dangerous for trick-or-treating. So she went to the store and bought each of the kids a big bag of candy, and they had a pretend Halloween in the house.

“We would go rent scary movies,” Esaw recalls now. “And we would all—we had a big king-size bed when we lived in Brooklyn, so we would all get up on the bed. It would be me, Eric, and all the kids.

“And I let them eat candy, and we’d sit there and watch all the scary movies together. He made it his business that every Sunday and every holiday he spent with the kids, no matter what.”

She laughs. “I know how it sounds, but if somebody called up and ordered five thousand dollars’ worth of crack, he would not leave the house. He would say, ‘Nope, this is a family day, see me tomorrow.’”

Garner was no kingpin. He didn’t have the stomach for what it would take to get there.

“He never killed anyone, and he wasn’t thugged out, you know?” Esaw explains. “He was a good guy. He just felt that was the only way he could take care of all of the kids that we had.”

Resentments built up over the years. Esaw had a way of getting under Eric’s skin that no one else could match. He was the kind of person who would take a ribbing for a long while before bursting, and she picked at this particular characteristic. When Esaw would start in on Eric, he would take it for a while, but eventually it would become too much. He’d put a fist through a wall, smash a television. “There was a lot of violence in the house,” daughter Erica remembers.

Once, in the early 2000s, Eric went away to jail again. While he was gone, another neighborhood drug dealer, a man much younger than Eric, took an interest in his family, started to check in on his kids. When Esaw went out shopping, the young man would come by and help the girls with their homework, or so Erica remembers.

By all accounts, there was nothing romantic going on between this man and Esaw. To the girls he was too young even to be a father figure and was more like a big brother.

But when Eric got back from jail, he wasn’t pleased to see another man involved with his children.

So one day the young man came by, expecting Esaw to be home and Eric out. But it was the other way around. He knocked on the door. Eric, back home now, leaped to his feet and yelled at the man through the door not to come around anymore. “Don’t talk to none of my kids. Don’t talk to my wife,” he said.

At some point the door opened and an epic melee ensued just outside the apartment. The kids remember seeing their father coming back into the house with a hand wrapped in a towel, and there was blood everywhere.