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In discussions and articles about the death of Eric Garner I encountered several people denying that he was actually choked and couldn't breathe. The essence of that argument most often was that "if you can talk, you can breathe", claiming that repeatedly saying "I can't breathe", as Eric Garner did according to the video evidence, is proof that he wasn't actually choked.

A CBS News repeats this claim as well:

Garner was overweight and in poor health. Police and their supporters argue that if he could repeatedly say, "I can't breathe," as he did several times, it means he could breathe.

Is it actually a case that people simply cannot speak if they are choked? Or is this wrong, and you can still asphyxiate while being able to talk?

Existing health issues certainly can play a role here, I think answers for healthy as well as people with relevant health issues like asthma would be interesting here.

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    As for "several people denying that he was actually choked", isn't that contradicted by the medical report? – ChrisW Dec 7 '14 at 23:12
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    NYPD "chokehold arrest" of Eric Garner ruled homicide says, "The death of Eric Garner, a man who died after being put in an apparent chokehold by a New York City police officer during an arrest, has been ruled a homicide. Garner's death was caused by compression of neck and chest, and his prone positioning during physical restraint by police, the New York City Medical Examiner's office announced Friday. Asthma, heart disease and obesity were listed as contributing factors." – ChrisW Dec 7 '14 at 23:12
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    It's entirely possible to be able to exhale, and thus speak, without being able to inhale again. Simply apply sufficient pressure to someone's chest. They'll be able to speak until their lungs are empty, but they won't be able to inhale. – Compro01 Dec 8 '14 at 19:54
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    What do people who deny he was choked suppose the cause of death is...?! – gerrit Dec 8 '14 at 22:41
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    @gerrit, he was just faking death to get attention. – Benjol Dec 9 '14 at 8:32
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Is being able to talk evidence that you can breathe?

Asthma guidelines (the victim was asthmatic) say you might talk a little even if you can't breathe enough:

  • The Asthma emergency page from "Athsma Australia" says that symptoms of a "life-threatening" emergency include:

    • Gasping for breath

    • Unable to speak or 1-2 words per breath

    • Confused or exhausted

    • Turning blue

    • Collapsing

    • May no longer have wheeze or cough

    • Not responding to reliever medication

    IMO being able to say "I can't breathe" is compatible with "1-2 words per breath" symptom.

  • When to seek emergency medical treatment on the Asthma attack page of the Mayo Clinic says,

    Seek medical attention right away if you have signs or symptoms of a serious asthma attack, which include:

    • Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning
    • The inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath
    • Having to strain your chest muscles to breathe
    • Low peak flow readings when you use a peak flow meter

    Again, IMO I would characterize "I can't breathe" as "a short phrase".


What does 'choked and couldn't breathe' mean?

Comments below this answer suggests misunderstandings about the word "choke" (in the question and in the actual event).

  • Wikipedia says that there are two kinds of choke-hold (i.e. "air choke", and "blood choke")
  • This BBC article suggests that use of the word "chokehold" in a police/reporting context is ambiguous, and could mean either: Eric Garner death: What next for the chokehold?

  • Choking is also a general/imprecise term for non-specific asphyxiation

When I watched the video it seemed to me that:

  • He said he couldn't breathe, after being taken to the ground.
  • While (as long as) the alleged choke-hold was being applied, which was for about 10 seconds, he said nothing intelligible/recorded.

That's consistent with the news report (note the word "after" in the following report):

A 400-pound asthmatic Staten Island dad died Thursday after a cop put him in a chokehold and other officers appeared to slam his head against the sidewalk, video of the incident shows.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Eric Garner, 43, repeatedly screamed after at least five NYPD officers took him down in front of a Tompkinsville beauty supply store when he balked at being handcuffed.

Within moments Garner, a married father of six children with two grandchildren, stopped struggling and appeared to be unconscious as police called paramedics to the scene.

I don't want my interpretation of the video to be part of this answer, but I say this in order to explain a limit/limitation of my answer. When I answer "yes" (i.e. that it's possible that he couldn't breathe enough, that he was "choking" even though he could say a few words) that is because, IMO:

  • The victim may still have "been choking" even while he was no longer "being choked", while he was complaining that he couldn't breathe.

  • "Choking" does not necessarily mean "continuous/deliberate compression of the trachea".

  • That isn't want the question is asking (the question doesn't presume that interpretation of choking)

If the question did imply/require that interpretation of choking, then this answer wouldn't be relevant. IMO the question is asking about "choking" as a synonym for "asphyxiating". The victim was asthmatic.

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    a question on this though, asthma is a medical condition that doesn't allow you to take proper full breaths because something internally is blocking your ability to breath in. and it is a narrowing of the lungs, not allowing you to take a full breath. being choked however means that your airway is completely blocked off. so being able to speak repeatedly means that the choking is leaving enough open for air to get into your lungs, and theoretically a full breath could pass through this. however the intensity of the choke could have been increasing and decreasing causing restricted breath. – Himarm Dec 10 '14 at 0:43
  • also speaking means that at the moment the airway was clear as a complete choke again stops the ability to speak. basically i don't believe asthma is a good comparison for being choked as it is 2 different parts of the airway that are being block and are unrelated. – Himarm Dec 10 '14 at 0:44
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    @Himarm I don't see a question in your comment. You seem to want to imply that "choked" is an "either all (no air) or nothing (no constriction)" condition. My answer to the question says, that people's experience with asthma is that it's possible to say a few words (which uses, I guess, about half a cup of air). I can count out loud to "40" with one lungsful of air, so I guess I could say "I can't breathe" using about 5% of one lungsful, plus I guess his body's demand for oxygen would have rocketed when he was arrested/attacked. – ChrisW Dec 10 '14 at 1:03
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    @Himarm The answer says, "yes you can talk a little even if you can't breathe enough." That's what the question asked. I don't see what more I could add? If you watch the video it seems to me that he couldn't breathe after being taken to the ground. He may still have "been choking" even while he was no longer "being choked", while he was complaining that he couldn't breathe. Your insisting that "choking" must mean "deliberate compression of the trachea" isn't want the question is asking. The question is (IMO) asking "choking" as a synonym for "asphyxiating". And, the victim was asthmatic. – ChrisW Dec 10 '14 at 1:49
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    @JonathonWisnoski You're right. The reason I said that because the average word has more than one syllable , so 3 syllables is IMO in the same range (of length) as "1-2 words". – ChrisW Dec 12 '14 at 9:44

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