She fought so we can all breathe

January 11, 2018

Akua Ofori, a socialist and racial justice activist from New York City, pays tribute to a tireless fighter for justice who was taken away from us far too soon.

MAYA ANGELOU'S poem "When Great Trees Fall," a beautiful tribute to those who have passed away, ends with this stanza:

When great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Angelou's words succinctly capture the sense of loss and grief many activists feel at the passing of Erica Garner. We also feel immense gratitude for her leadership, conviction and quest for justice in the wake of the murder of her father, Eric Garner, by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo.

On December 30, 2017, Erica passed away following a heart attack that starved her brain of oxygen, leaving her in a coma. She was 27 years old.

Erica died at a tragically young age, but not before having a great impact on the lives of countless people in the movement for racial justice and against police killings and other racist policing practices and policies.

Erica Garner
Erica Garner

BORN ON May 29, 1990, Erica was Eric Garner's oldest daughter. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, a fact she always emphasized due to the common assumption that she was from Staten Island, a place she was wary of.

Erica was a sister, an aunt, a daughter and a friend to many. She was also a single mother to two children: her 8-year-old daughter Alyssa and her newest born Eric, named for her father.

As columnist Shaun King wrote after her death, "When you were her friend, you were her friend through all adversity. She was a fierce protector of her friends and family. A truth teller. As genuine and authentic of a soul you'll ever encounter. We're less because of this loss."

Prior to her father's death, Erica was not an activist. However, the NYPD's murder of her father propelled her into action--despite the public attention and stress it brought to her life.

Like many family members of police murder victims, Erica was a key driver of the movement--in New York and beyond--that pressed for justice for her father. She tirelessly organized direct actions, rallies, marches and other forms of protest in pursuit of a conviction of Pantaleo, whose illegal chokehold ended her father's life.

Most notably, for a whole year after her father's death, Erica staged a die-in on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the site where Pantaleo murdered her father. These protests drew large crowds and kept her father's case in the spotlight as more police killings cycled through the news media at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

For Erica, these weekly protests were a way to provide leadership to the movement and support for her family. In a 2014 interview with CNN, she explained what kept her going in the fight for her father:

Some days, I don't know how I keep it together. But I have a 5-year-old, and she looks up to me. I have little brothers. I have a little sister. And I guess I have to be the leader. I have to show them that by me being strong, you can be strong, too.

IN HER activist work, Erica's perspectives were insightful regarding the systemic nature of police killings in the U.S., calling it "a national crisis"--one that we now know claims more than a 1,000 lives every year.

Erica also expressed profound gratitude for the multiracial character of the protests in support of her family and her father, which gave her hope that she was not alone in her fight for justice. As she said in the CNN interview:

This is not a Black and white issue--this is a national crisis. For white people to come out and show how deeply they were hurt, and Asians and different people from different nations and different parts of the world to come out and show that they felt the same way I felt on that video, I greatly appreciate it. It's like a sense of, I'm not the only one that feels this way.

As an activist, Erica inspired many people in the movement against police killings and for Black lives. In particular, she contributed thoughtful and hopeful movement perspectives through numerous articles she authored to cut against the cynicism and infighting that movements sometimes experience.

In a co-authored article in the Guardian that drew lessons from one of the many protests in memory of her father, Erica shared incisive views on the centrality of solidarity within our movements and the need for activists to work together in a united front to demand change:

The police are killing our people--that's reason enough not to fight amongst ourselves. No movement is immune to conflict, but it's up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together. We build relationships with other activists and supporters, take the streets and risk arrest because we're fighting for a world that truly values our lives.

If those in power can remain coordinated and steadfast in their commitment to obscure the truth, then we can and must come together to demand transparency and accountability.

ANOTHER OF Erica's key contributions to the fight was her perceptive criticisms of the two-party political system and the complicity of both parties in creating and upholding racist policing, mass incarceration and economically devastating policies that disproportionately impacted working-class communities of color.

During the 2016 election year, Erica wrote on Twitter: "I'm not a Democrat nor a Republican. They're two sides of the same corrupt coin. Don't be surprised when I critique either of them." And: "My dad was killed under Democrats and had Democrats in a liberal city cover it up..."

In July 2016, Erica gained even more prominence when she protested Barack Obama's town hall forum on race relations that featured family members of police violence victims.

The town hall was supposed to provide a national platform for invited family members of victims like Eric Garner and Alton Sterling to discuss the national epidemic of murder by police. In reality, however, speakers were carefully chosen, leaving others, such as Erica, unable to pose their questions.

Disappointed and enraged at being marginalized, Erica protested backstage to get Obama's attention and voice her dismay. "That's what I have to do? A Black person has to yell to be heard?" she asked.

Erica felt "railroaded" by ABC and Obama, calling the town hall a "farce" and charging that it was "nothing short of full exploitation of Black pain and grief."

Experiences like these and the ongoing lack of justice for her father contributed to her radicalization, leading her to condemn the whole political system. "When I think about capitalism, I think about slavery, sharecropping, bank scandal, Wall Street donors...#HillaryClinton's people," she wrote on Twitter.

Her disappointment with politics as usual moved her to endorse Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries. To her, Sanders had proven in both his platform and in practice that he was committed to addressing racist policing policies and practices. As she put it in an early 2016 radio interview:

He's not lecturing us. He's not taking us to the back room, he's not telling us what we should think. He's listening. He's open to listening...It's our job as a people to hold him accountable for anything that he says...

He's fighting for a better education, free education...When you get to higher education, Black people especially, we're in debt. We are more in debt than in real estate. I believe that my daughter--she's six years old--she doesn't have a chance at college, not because she's not smart enough, but it's because of money.

In four brief minutes, the video of Erica announcing her endorsement of Sanders provided us with a glimpse of her beauty--her struggle as a single mother; her love for her daughter, her dad and her family; and her commitment to fighting for a more humane world.

WHILE IT'S important to discuss Erica's unceasing fight for justice and contributions to the movement for Black lives, we must also recognize the heartbreaking impact that the trauma of losing a loved one, fighting for justice in a racist and anti-poor system, and enduring racist taunting from hostile forces have on one's health.

In the radio interview cited above, Erica described the constant harassment that she--as well as Ramsey Orta, the bystander who heroically recorded the murder of her father--experienced at the hands of the NYPD:

They don't want people standing together. They know my presence out in Staten Island because I protested every Tuesday and Thursday for about a year. So they know my face. They know what I do. They used to follow me in unmarked cars with my protest. Set up barricades where I was supposed to protest. They even started [counter-protests] and used the same route and the same things I was doing, they were trying to do.

As Erica shared in an interview with Democracy Now! in January 2016, the loss of her father and the stressful public attention took a significant emotional toll on her family:

When you deal with grief, when you talk about grief and you talk about family and how regular families deal with it, you know, families have problems. Family has trouble with coping with it. But it makes it so [difficult] because now we are part of this national scale. Like everything we do is in the paper. We got people coming from the left field giving us bad advice, people coming in with their own agendas...

We don't have union reps and people to represent us and tell us, 'Well, you need to do this, you need to do that.' And my family has just been dealing with that, trying to stay organized and also deal with the fact that my father is gone and, like, nothing is being done about it.

Erica's health was compromised by racism, sexism and class oppression. In the radio interview, Erica described her struggle with depression in the aftermath of her father's death and how difficult it is for poor people like herself to afford mental-health services:

I also want to mention mental health. You hear [Mayor] De Blasio making mental health an important issue, but he has nothing put in place for people like me, like Tamir Rice's little sister. Victims that have to deal with mental health. I have to literally beg doctors to help me talk to someone professionally, and it's $300 an hour, and who got money for that? I'm not rich, and I'm pretty sure other families are not rich, and they can't afford that.

Thank God for this one person that's offering for free to talk with me because mental health does affect you, and this is trauma. This is trauma. I haven't dealt with my father's death. I haven't been mourning. I've been dealing with my father's death as a case study, like constantly speaking out, and this is all I have.

It wasn't until after Erica was hospitalized in December that many of us learned of an earlier heart attack she suffered in September following the birth of her second child.

Right before her second heart attack in December, she explained in an interview that family members of police brutality victims become broken by the stress of the loss and the fight for justice. "Look at Kalief Browder's mother, she died of a broken heart," Erica said. "I'm struggling right now from the stress of everything...because the system, it beats you down."

OVER THE past couple of years, in the context of the Movement for Black Lives, we have learned from public health data and Black maternal health advocates that racism, sexism and poverty take a tremendous toll on the health of Black women. A recent article about Black maternal health underscores, one by one, many of the health issues Erica faced:

According to the CDC, Black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health. Put another way, a Black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 300 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.

While health disparities have often been explained in terms of race, the real issue is racism. Persistent inequality that affects access to health care, schooling, housing and, as we've recently learned, clean drinking water also makes chronic health issues far more prevalent for Black people. For example, both Erica and her father suffered from asthma.

Making matters even worse, as authors Nina Martin and Renee Montagne point out, when Black women talk to their doctors and nurses, they report feeling that their ailments and complaints are taken less seriously. "[N]umerous studies," they point out, "show pain is often untreated in Black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer."

The problem is so deeply rooted that there is mounting evidence that even social class has limits in terms of protection against the chronic stress brought on by lifelong racism--a sort of cumulative effect that isn't easily wiped away.

As Michael Lu, the former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, puts it: "It's the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It's being followed around when you're shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you're driving in a nice neighborhood."

In Erica's case--as is true with so many Black men and women across the country--the stress of losing a loved one at the hands of police serves to compound the stresses of living in a city where "Black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; from 2001 to 2005, their risk of death was seven times higher."

ERICA WAS a hero among us, a historymaker and changemaker. She viewed herself as a lifelong social justice activist who saw organizing as her calling:

I've dedicated myself to this. Not only fighting for justice for my father, but fighting for everyone. Fighting for the next generation. I want to teach the next generation of organizers and protesters to know that you don't only have to be walking in the streets to get your voice heard. They are many other outlets.

Erica Garner, we thank you for all your work, your passion, and your fight for your father and family until the very end. You lived up to this promise you made: "I'm never giving up. I'm never going to forget. And I don't want the world to forget what happened to my dad."

You showed us, through your words and actions, what it means to struggle, to fight like hell for both the dead and the living, and to work together for justice and a better world.

We will take the torch you lit and carried and we will continue this fight for your father, for you, your family, and for all those who continue to be impacted by racist police violence and murder. We can be. Be and be better. For you existed.

Thank you, and Rest in Power.

Further Reading

From the archives