I met Erica Garner on December 18, 2014. I know because I made a video of her singing “I Can’t Breathe” with fellow protesters on Staten Island that night. The song was inspired by Eric Garner’s last words and written by the Peace Poets (original version here). We sang it on the steps of the Staten Island courthouse after marching to protest the killing of Eric Garner by the NYPD and lack of justice in the case.
Most of us sang:
“I can hear my brother crying ‘I can’t breathe’
Now I’m in the struggle, and I can’t leave
Calling out the violence of the racist police
We’re not going to stop [clap, clap]
‘Til people are free”
But Erica sang, “I can hear my father crying ‘I can’t breathe,’” and I thought about how some of us choose to become activists and others have activism thrust upon them. I looked around. We were all protesting the same injustices, but most of us imagined those injustices abstractly. Erica lacked that luxury.
I had come to Staten Island after seeing a picture of Erica lying on the sidewalk in the place where her father died. She tweeted that she had been all alone that night and asked #BlackLivesMatter protesters to come to Staten Island, where she was protesting every Tuesday and Thursday.
I took the ferry to Staten Island the following week. We were a small group that night: 20, maybe 30 people. It was nothing like the big protests I was used to. Staten Island is the least populated borough in New York City. It felt desolate. Like it was just us and the police on the streets that night. As we marched, I was keenly aware that the cops shouting “Get off the street” and “Stay on the sidewalk” probably knew the man who killed Eric Garner.
We marched from the courthouse to the site of his death and back again. The march was subdued. It felt like a space to reflect on the life of Eric Garner –– a person with a family just like all of us –– and the impact of his death on his family, some of whom marched with us. We lay silently in the street at the site of Eric’s death for eleven minutes –– one minute for each time Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe” while pleading for the police officer to release him. We marched back to the courthouse and sang on the steps.
After that, we boarded the ferry back to Manhattan. On the ferry, Erica talked about her dad who loved Christmas and her daughter Alyssa, who was five years old. The ferry was pretty empty, and it felt safe. Most of us were in our twenties or late teens. We talked about justice and freedom, but we also laughed and sang. Erica had sad eyes that reminded me of my mom’s. She had a slow smile that lit up her face. She sang and we sang along. She freestyled and we listened.
When we got back to Battery Park, Erica and I stood outside the subway terminal, figuring out which trains would take us home. We both lived in Brooklyn, and we bonded over the fact that she lived in Williamsburg, which was my first New York neighborhood. She was one year younger than I am.
At the time, activists on Twitter debated whether Erica Garner should have a public platform because in her early media appearances, she said she wasn’t sure if racism contributed to the death of her father (because Black police officers also perpetuate police brutality).
I thought it was unjust to expect the young daughter of a police brutality victim to have a critical race analysis on par with scholars who have spent years studying racism. But she grew to be a powerful voice, challenging systemic inequality and fighting for change on every level.
She understood that, as a result of the tragedy she endured, she had a powerful platform and decided to use it. Her biggest concern from day one was being an activist with integrity. Instead of partnering with big-name organizations, she organized marches on Staten Island by herself, on Twitter. She worked with the volunteers who showed up and marched along with her.
And she was relentless in her search for justice. She revisited her father’s murder over and over again because she wanted to make sure that no other daughter had to suffer like she did.
When we remember Erica Garner, we should think of an incorruptible activist dedicated to racial justice.
Erica Garner died months after giving birth to Eric Garner, Jr.
When we talk about Erica Garner, we should talk about systemic racism and how it results in high rates of maternal mortality for Black women.
When we honor Erica Garner, we should carry on her fight for justice by demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio
- release the disciplinary records of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man who killed Eric Garner and continues to work as a police officer
- fire Daniel Pantaleo
- make the chokehold illegal so that if other officers kill citizens like Pantaleo killed Eric Garner, they face consequences for their deadly actions
We know that is what she would have done.
But when you think of Erica Garner, I hope you’ll also think of a young woman on a ferry laughing and singing with her friends, and mourn the life she should have had.