Erica Garner, Black Lives Matter activist and daughter of African American victim of police murder Eric Garner, died on December 30 aged 27.
The proximate cause of death was a heart attack, extremely rare in one so young. The underlying cause was the trauma-induced stress (PTSD) she and her family suffered because of Eric’s murder in 2014, the exoneration of the killer cops, and the callous way the Garner family was treated by city authorities, including Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Erica was in the hospital for acute asthma, itself stress-related, when she had the heart attack.
Eric Garner was jumped by a gang of white cops on July 27, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of the city. His “crime” was standing on a street corner allegedly selling individual cigarettes to earn a few dollars.
The cops forced him to the ground, and one, Daniel Pantaleo, put Eric in a chokehold and strangled him to death while the other held him down.
He pleaded for his life, hoarsely whispering: “I can’t breathe.” Meanwhile, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel stood by.
The whole incident was caught on a mobile phone video by a bystander, Ramsey Ortega, and was aired on national TV. Ortega was later arrested by the cops in retaliation.
Erica saw her father’s murder on TV. She became an activist then and there.
Campaigning for justice
On August 23, 2014, thousands, including Erica, marched in protest in Staten Island. She told Democracy Now!: “My dad was a loving man, he was a humble man, and he was a nice man … He did whatever he could for anybody who came around him…
“Seeing the videotape, I was traumatised. I was very, like, horrified. It was horrible. Just seeing my father die on national TV was just horrible. I’ve got to live with this forever.”
In December 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo (and never even considered indicting the other cops). This sparked a huge march that shut down parts of New York City and the Brooklyn Bridge. There were about 50 demonstrations in other cities in solidarity.
Erica was at the site of her father’s death in Staten Island, and said: “This is the spot that EMS workers and police officers failed us New Yorkers, because they let an innocent man die, beg for his life, fight for his last breath.
“And now, I have to come here every time I feel sad … I have to be his voice.”
Journalist Kirsten West Savali told Democracy Now!: “I met Erica in 2016 at a Drug Policy Alliance gathering at Columbia University. And she was there making the connection between what was really a modern day lynching of her father, the war on drugs, and the occupation of Black and Brown communities…
“Erica was very resilient. She didn’t let her grief stop her. She didn’t let her rage make her immobile. She used it to lift her voice for a community of people. She was not afraid to stand alone.
“She was not afraid to not follow the trend, particularly of Black women who were supporting Hilary Clinton during the election. That was not something that was popular to do.”
Erica supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary against Clinton, appearing in a powerful ad about her struggle for justice and the broader campaign against racism.
Savali said that when Sanders was no longer in the race, Erica “spoke about the political duopoly [Democrats and Republicans] and how you could not put your faith in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. So I think that’s important.”
Erica and her family fought to get justice, filing a suit. De Blasio repeatedly fought the family, refusing to release Pantaleo’s record of abuses.
After the city made a settlement with the family, the Citizen Complaint Review Board leaked his record. It included 14 citizen complaints, including physical abuse in a vehicle stop in 2011 and in a stop-and-frisk event in 2012.
Stop-and-frisk is a policy of randomly accosting mainly Black and Brown young men without a warrant and searching them, part of systematic police harassment. Pantaleo’s record has never been officially released, and as such was unable to be used in the Garner family’s suit.
Pantaleo was not sacked. He remains a paid member of the force today.
The Citizen Complaint Review Board is seeking to bring charges against Pantaleo and the other cops. However, the Police Department is blocking the effort by using a technical ruse — refusing to provide a number to the case.
Although Erica remained a fighter, and didn’t let her grief get in the way of her struggle, the trauma took its toll.
She commented in 2016: “Mental health is very important. Families that are put in our position, Black families that are on public assistance that don’t have the income to get [expensive] therapy, for the Black population, how are we supposed to cope if we don’t have someone professionally to talk to?
“I’m trying to figure out how can I get past this barrier, because this is trauma.”
During Erica’s funeral, Reverend Al Sharpton said: “[They say] she died of a heart attack, no, her heart was attacked.”
“The fallout from police violence is killing Black women like Erica Garner,” wrote University of Texas professor Christen Smith in a January 8 Truth-Out.org article. “When we think of police lethality, we typically consider the immediate body count: the people that die from bullets and baton blows…
“But these numbers do not reveal the slow death that Black women experience. The long-range trauma police brutality causes can be as deadly as a bullet. The pain of loss kills with heart attacks, strokes, depression and even anemia.”
Smith told Democracy Now!: “When I heard that Erica Garner had a heart attack, I was devastated … primarily because I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, this is happening again’…
“So for me, police violence is like a nuclear bomb. The initial blast is only a fraction of what is to come. In the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, there is fallout. The trauma of police violence is like fallout, and it kills you slowly like the cancer that kills you because of fallout.”
In a January 2 New York Times op-ed “Erica Garner and How America Destroys Black Families”, Kashana Cauley wrote: “It is impossible to think of her death without thinking of her father’s death in 2014, the devastation their family must feel and the ways Black families have been destroyed throughout history going back to slavery.”