When Eric Garner was murdered by New York City police in July 2014, the cops had targeted him on suspicion of selling “loosies” – single cigarettes taken from illegally untaxed cigarette packs. Witnesses claimed that Garner hadn’t been selling loosies that day and had in fact just helped break up a fight – the incident that first drew police to the scene. Described as a “gentle giant”, Garner often played the role of peacemaker in his Staten Island neighborhood.
Garner did regularly sell loosies – at 50 cents apiece, and had been busted for it on numerous occasions. In fact, he had several court cases pending at the time of his final fatal encounter with the NYPD. He’d long felt the police were out to get him. In 2007, he filed a complaint against a cop for “digging his fingers in my rectum in the middle of the street.”
Video taken at the scene of his murder makes clear that Garner saw his encounter with the police that day as another in the long line of harassments they’d directed against him. “I didn’t do nothing,” he told them. “Every time you see me you want to stop me.” “I’m tired of it.”
Eric Garner’s killing, captured so graphically and poignantly on video by his friend Ramsey Orta, was a prime catalyst for the mass anti-racism movements and rebellions that have taken hold across the U.S. His gasping pleas of “I can’t breathe” quickly became a mantra at racial justice protests, serving as a metaphor for the choking oppressiveness on communities of color of deeply entrenched systemic racism, surfacing most visibly in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems, but playing out across all areas of social life. Sadly, Garner’s final words have been repeated all too often by other victims of police violence in their final moments, most notably by George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
Eric Garner’s Economic Life
While Garner’s killing has been widely understood as providing a window into the racist underpinnings of New York’s, and the nation’s, policing and criminal justice systems, far less attention has been paid to the economic dimensions of Garner’s life as a seller of loosie cigarettes. Here, too, there are important insights to be gained into larger realities.
Eric Garner came from a solidly working class family. His mother (a train operator), sister (a bus driver) and aunt (a station agent) all worked for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and were proud members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Eric graduated from New York’s Automotive High School. He subsequently worked as a mechanic and as a landscaper for New York’s horticultural department.
African American poet Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” was inspired by Garner’s work as a landscaper.
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
Perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
Serious health problems eventually made it impossible for Eric to continue working. Known affectionately as Big E, he was 6’3” tall and weighed 395 pounds at the time of his death. He suffered from asthma, obesity, sleep apnea, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Walking was difficult for him. He could barely go a block without having to stop and rest.
Garner’s health problems no doubt shaped the contours of his economic life. The structure of disability payments in the U.S. is designed to provide minimal economic support for people unable to work, or with limited ability to work because of documentable health, physical, or psychological conditions. Disability recipients usually also have access to other safety net programs – Medicaid, food stamps (aka SNAP or EBT), and, perhaps, some form of subsidized housing. Such social supports are managed by bureaucratized systems whose default stance toward recipients combines attitudes of skepticism, judgementalism, dehumanization, and, eventually, for most applicants, a grudging acknowledgement of the need for help. Applicants are carefully screened, often waiting for five months or more between the time they apply for benefits and the time they actually start receiving them.
Monthly disability payments vary, depending on what type of disability people are eligible for. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) bases payments on recipients’ average lifetime earnings prior to their disability. In 2020, monthly payments ranged from $800 – $1800, with a nationwide average of $1,258 a month.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI), for elderly or disabled folks with limited work histories, paid $783 a month in 2020, $1,175 for couples. Some states add modest amounts to these federal dollars.
For Eric Garner, a proud and loving father determined to help provide for his six children, his monthly disability checks, assuming he was receiving them, would have been barely enough to survive on, even if he were getting the maximum amount allowable. Selling loosie cigarettes would thus have provided a much-needed off-the-books source of extra cash. Such additional flows of income are an absolute necessity for millions of low-income folks, including those who receive some form of government support. But the rules of the systems that provide that support often limit how much money recipients can earn without jeopardizing their safety net payments. SSI recipients, for example, are only allowed to earn $85 a month in additional income before being penalized by losing 50 cents from their monthly disability payments for every dollar earned above the $85 limit.
I stumbled upon this painful reality when I coordinated a farm stand and farm share project in collaboration with several students from the Bronx adult education program I directed. Most of the students who worked with me on a regular basis were on disability. They were mainstays of the project, working one or two days a week for most of the year. While limited in their ability to work full time, they all were able to put in the time to help manage the daily nuts and bolts work of the farm stand and farm share distribution. In spite of the government supports they received, all were in desperate need of additional income. The farm stand did not make a profit, but it did generate a modest amount of cash. At first, the program was able to pay for purchasing the produce we sold. So I was able to split the money we took in from each week’s farm stand sales among the students. But, divided three or four ways, it was not very much per person.
One year, when our program had a bit of a budget surplus, I was able to put two of the students on salary at $12.50 an hour for one day a week – a total of $87.50 weekly for each of them. This seemed like an amazing victory. And it made a big difference in the economic stability of the students’ lives. But several months after they went on salary, their farm stand income came to the attention of Social Security staff. They’d been earning around $265 a month above the $85 limit, and thus owed the system half of that amount for each month they’d been on salary. They had to pay back that money over a six month period through reductions in their already paltry monthly disability payments. None of us had been aware of the $85 monthly limit beforehand.
I then returned to paying all the students entirely in cash, supplementing the intake from the farm stand with my own funds. I was able to do this with a budgetary sleight of hand. Though I’d retired as director of the program, I was still working part time as financial manager. So I added a few extra paid hours to my weekly schedule, using my extra salary to cover most of the additional cash payments I gave my student co-workers as a replacement for the salary we could no longer officially pay them on the books.
To the extent our farm stand project depended on off-the-books cash transactions, we had become part of the informal economy – the array of economic activities that take place outside of the regulated and officially reported and measured activities that are commonly thought of as “the economy” in modern societies. The informal economy, also sometimes referred to as the underground economy, accounts for a significant part of economic activity throughout the globe. But it’s not included in the common measures of national economic life like the Gross Domestic or Gross National Product. It exists as a kind of shadow reality, one in which hundreds of millions of people, living in virtually every country on earth, dwell in and depend upon for at least part of their economic survival.
Eric Garner’s loosie cigarette business was an outcropping of the informal economy in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island. And he was far from the only informal economy participant in the area. Eric usually parked himself on Bay Street, just outside of Tompkinsville Park. The New York Times described the site as “a poor and working-class area whose population swells each day with those bound for the welfare office across the street.” Garner was part of a scene of local folks selling loosies and cheap goods outside the park, all of whom played a “cat and mouse game” with the police. Such spaces are commonplace in urban communities, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
Eric was a mainstay of the Bay Street community. He played chess and checkers with friends, regularly treated local kids to ice cream from ice cream trucks, and was known for his role as a peacemaker.
The scene on Bay Street provided Garner with many things – a place to earn money off the books, a comfortable, familiar space to hang out in the midst of an often cold, alienating city, a community of friends. But to others – to some local business owners and neighborhood residents, to the police, to political leaders determined to transform New York into a more controlled and sanitized city – Bay Street was a place of disorder and chaos that needed to be tamed. In 2014, the year of Eric Garner’s murder, the area had been the site of 98 arrests. In addition, 100 criminal summonses had been issued there, 646 calls had been placed to 911, and 9 complaints filed with the City’s 311 number.
Cracking down on the kind of informal economy activities that Eric Garner and his friends participated in has been a key element in the law and order strategy known as broken windows policing, a guiding principle in New York City for the past three decades. It has led to the criminalization of tens of thousands of mostly low-income people of color who have depended on informal economy income for their survival.
Introduced under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani by his first police commissioner, William Bratton, broken windows policing was based on the theory that cracking down on minor “quality of life” violations in high crime neighborhoods would result in a reduction in the incidence of more serious crime. Metaphorically, “repairing broken windows” in a community would help produce an atmosphere of order in the disorderly zones of the city, namely the overwhelmingly Black and Brown ‘hoods and barrios of New York.
It’s worth noting that, in a literal sense, there was indeed a plague of broken (and boarded up) windows, as well as block upon block of burned out buildings, in these neighborhoods at the time Giuliani took office. This wreckage stemmed almost entirely from the intentional neglect and abandonment of property in poor communities by landlords and by the city’s financial institutions. But of course there was no thought of targeting these agents of disorder. They were New York’s elite, the power centers of the city, the “permanent government” that called the shots on major policy issues in the Big Apple, regardless of who was mayor.
Instead, broken windows policing went after squeegee guys (mostly young men and teenagers who offered to clean car windows at prime intersections), subway turnstile jumpers, people hanging out on stoops and street corners drinking beer, smoking joints or gambling, street vendors of all kinds operating without a license, and people selling loosie cigarettes and cheap goods in places like Bay Street outside of Tompkinsville Park in Staten Island.
Broken windows policing continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who added a new strategy to the city’s law and order policing repertoire – stop and frisk. Every year, tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of mostly young Black and Latinx men were stopped, searched and questioned by cops in their own neighborhoods for no reason other than who they were – young men of color.
When Bill De Blasio became mayor, he ended stop and frisk, fulfilling a promise that had been central to his “tale of two cities” social-justice framed mayoral campaign. But De Blasio remained stubbornly committed to broken windows policing, bringing back Bill Bratton, the guru of that policy, as his first police commissioner. It was under De Blasio’s watch that Eric Garner was murdered by Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Accompanying Pantaleo on that fateful day was Officer Justin Damico, the “quality of life” coordinator at the local 20th Police Precinct. Damico’s commander, Lt. Christopher Bannon, had long targeted the Bay Street scene as a focal point for the precinct’s broken windows policing work. Eric Garner was a tragic victim of that law and order strategy.
The Rise of the Loosie and Some Big Apple Stories
People have no doubt been making money selling loose cigarettes for centuries. But in recent years loosie selling has mushroomed into a widespread practice thanks in large part to the late 20th century, early 21st century anti-tobacco movement. Ever escalating taxes on cigarettes, the banning of smoking in most indoor and many outdoor spaces, and the virtual disappearance of once ubiquitous cigarette machines, have created a vast army of recalcitrant cigarette smokers desperately seeking a low cost, quick tobacco fix. Eric Garner was by no means unique as a loosie entrepreneur, and Bay Street in Staten Island was only one of a multitude of loosie selling scenes across the Big Apple.
In April 2011, three years before Eric Garner’s death, a New York Times article offered readers a vivid picture of loosie entrepreneurship on 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Catering mainly to office workers streaming in and out of the canyon of office buildings in the area, multiple loosie vendors divided up and sometimes competed for territory along the avenue.
The article featured a portrait of one vendor, known affectionately as Lonnie Loosie, a friendly, outgoing and vocal hawker of loose cigarettes. Working with two partners, Lonnie Loosie plied his wares mainly on the east side of a one block stretch of 8th Ave. Customers working in buildings 4 or 5 blocks away regularly sought him out. He and his partners each took home between $120 – 150 a day, re-upping their supply of cigarettes from a network of mostly West African suppliers who smuggled cartons of cigarettes up to New York from Southern states with minimal tobacco taxes.
Each loosie sale was a misdemeanor offense, and frequent arrests were an occupational hazard of the midtown loosie business. Lonnie estimated he’d been busted about 15 times during his four years hawking loose cigarettes. His arrests often landed him in the Rikers Island jail system for a few days. Lonnie used these visits to get medical checkups. Though business had been good enough at the time of the article’s writing that he was contemplating purchasing his own health insurance.
Lonnie Loosie was no stranger to prison, having served hard time for robberies he committed in his youth, when he was a crack addict. Once released, he found himself shut out of most job opportunities because of his criminal record. So he turned to selling loosies. According to a Legal Aid lawyer who frequently represented him, Lonnie Loosie was well known and well liked at the local Midtown Community Court, where he’d appear after each arrest. Because of his friendly and respectful manner, he stood out among the parade of hustlers and street denizens who regularly appeared at the court. Lonnie’s dream was to become a barker hustling up business for the tour buses catering to the crowds of out of town visitors wandering midtown streets.
You’ll find loosie-selling going on in all kinds of neighborhoods in the Big Apple. A May 2020 New York Times op-ed by Shawn McCresh highlighted the loosie scene at an unnamed Irish bar somewhere in the City, where the author had once worked. The piece focused on the differing attitudes toward then-President Donald Trump between the overwhelmingly pro-Trump Irish American bar patrons on the one hand and, on the other, recent Irish immigrants who uniformly despised the guy. McCresh described the bar as a cash only place that sold “discounted cigarettes driven up from Virginia.” It was, he said “the sort of place where you could make $800 under the table but also might get a bottle or chair thrown at you.”
One can safely assume that local police were well aware of the goings-on at the bar, and that some neighborhood cops quite likely frequented it. What are the odds, however, that any bar employees were ever busted for selling loosies? Some broken windows warrant “fixing”. Others are let be, viewed as a natural part of the colorful fabric of city life, and, in the case of bars like this, as places where boys will be boys.