The role of New York’s high cigarette taxes in the death of Eric Garner drew more scrutiny Sunday as his widow said that he was targeted not because of his race, but because he continued to defy local ordinances by selling loose cigarettes.
Esaw Garner said police in Staten Island knew her husband sold individual cigarettes and would harass him, calling him “cigarette man” and her “cigarette man wife.”
“I feel that he was murdered unjustly. I don’t even feel like it’s a black-and-white thing, honestly, in my opinion,” Ms. Garner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I feel like it’s just something that he continued to do. And the police knew.”
New York has the highest state taxes on cigarettes in the nation at $4.35 per pack, while New York City tacks on an additional $1.50 in taxes, bringing the total tax rate to $5.85 per pack. The taxes bring in an estimated $1.8 billion per year.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Sunday that police targeted the 43-year-old Garner “because they’re so eager for tax collection.”
“What was Eric Garner doing? He was selling cigarettes, loose cigarettes,” Mr. Limbaugh told “Fox News Sunday.” “And the police in New York, because they’re so eager for tax collection — what is being done here [pertains] to taxes and the state’s desire to collect them no matter what.”
Critics say New York’s high cigarette taxes have created an underground market and incentives for people to sell loose cigarettes.
“I think the real outrage here is that an American died while the state is enforcing tax collection on cigarettes. This is just absurd,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “And … you know, people talk about the left [wanting] a big state. They want a powerful state. Well, here it is. You’ve got to take all of it.”
A grand jury’s decision Wednesday not to indict the officer who choked to death Mr. Garner during the arrest touched off three straight nights of protests nationwide, including rioting Saturday in Berkeley, California, in which protesters hurled rocks at police and smashed storefront windows.
The Garner decision inflamed tensions already high over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who was unarmed but shot during a scuffle with an officer. In both instances, the officers were white and the shooting victims were black.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was accused of fanning unrest after the grand jury’s decision in the Garner case by saying that he has had to train his mixed-race son about the “dangers” he faces when encountering police.
Ms. Garner said Sunday that police “knew him by name and harassed us” for his illegal cigarette selling.
“We would go shopping. They [would say] ‘Hi, cigarette man. Hey, cigarette man wife.’ You know, stuff like that,” Ms. Garner said. “And I would just say, ‘Eric, just keep walking. Don’t say anything; don’t respond. Don’t give them a reason to do anything to you.’ And he just felt like, ‘But babe, they keep harassing me.’”
Although Mr. Garner was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 350 pounds, his wife said he had asthma and often was sick, which made it difficult for him to hold a job. He had previously worked for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
“He had issues. Heavy guy. And he was very lazy,” Ms. Garner said. “He didn’t like to do anything. He wasn’t used to it.”
Mr. Limbaugh asked, “How many people smoking marijuana did the cops pass by and ignore on the way to Eric Garner?”
“You’ve got $13 a carton, $13 a pack in New York City. Over $6 of that is taxes,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “And the authorities are telling the cops, ‘You go out and you stop that’ because they’re so intent on collecting tax revenue.”
Even though Ms. Garner downplayed the racial issue, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who also appeared on “Meet the Press,” said questions need to be asked as to whether Mr. Garner’s race contributed to his death.
“When you bring up race — and she has tried to say, ‘I don’t want to deal with race as the issue,’ but could he have been treated differently?” Mr. Sharpton said. “If he was of a different race with the same background, and no one’s trying to sugarcoat anyone’s background here, would he have been treated the same way? And that’s what we’re talking about.”