It’s been two years since Eric Garner was killed by police. We spoke with his daughter about her father and her civil rights activism.
By Julie Morse
Erica Garner with Bernie Sanders at the Apollo Theater on April 9, 2016. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
This weekend marks two years since the death of Eric Garner, who was killed in daylight on a street corner in Staten Island during an altercation with police. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for protests against violence against people of color. Like Alton Sterling, who was shot and killed last week by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Garner made a living selling goods on the streets, and was killed while working.
“I’m minding my own business, officer. Please just leave me alone,” says Garner in a video recorded by friend and bystander Ramsey Orta in July 2014. The footage, which helped galvanize the growing Black Lives Matter movement, shows all five officers pinning Garner to the ground, and one in particular, Daniel Pantaleo, locking him into the chokehold that, according to themedical examiner for the City of New York, killed him. Not a single officer was indicted, a fact that led to a surge of protests — both in the streets and across social media networks.
Garner’s death also had the effect of pulling his family into a media spotlight. In particular, his eldest child, Erica Garner, has become a tenacious activist: positioning herself prominently in political debates surrounding police brutality over the past two years, organizing and leading protests that shed light on the New York Police Department’s excessive use of force, and calling for federal legislation to demand the use of body cameras on police. She’s also collaborated with politicians to bring these issues to light, including former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who featured her in one of his campaign videos.
Below, a conversation I had with Erica about her civil rights activism, lack of basic health care for grieving families of police brutality, and how she grapples with memories of her father.
Your family has been a victim of police brutality. Your father’s death helped launch the #BlackLivesMatter movement. You’re orchestrating a lot. How has that been for you?
This is it what gets me up every day, to stay busy. You know, instead of just being depressed, grieving, mourning, and not wanting to see the light of day. My daughter is the light my life and her along with people with their warm comments and this overlap of love is what gets me out here to do the work.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
I found my calling. I’ve been searching for years trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ve been a cashier at a dead-end job not even making ends meet. Before all this happened with my dad, I was a cashier out in Long Island City. Just working a regular 9–5 six days a week. It was very tiring, but I had to do to it to pay the bills. Now that this happened to my dad and people are so eager to hear the message that I’m sending, I’ve found my calling and it uplifts me and it helps me a lot.
I was listening to your Breakfast Club interview and you say, “I’ve been dealing with my father’s death as a case study.” You say you haven’t been able to mourn. How has that affected you and your family?
I can’t speak on behalf of my family; I can only say what me and my daughter face every day. My father was an enormous figure in my life and my daughter’s life. I’m the oldest out of five children and my daughter is the only granddaughter. We had a real special bond with my dad. Since he was taken away from us, I have to keep the memory alive in my daughter’s heart and mind.
Do you think that being an activist has been some kind of catharsis in terms of mourning?
No, I’m not mourning, because I still haven’t accepted the fact that my father’s gone. I’m just constantly researching, doing interviews and marching in the streets, and connecting with people. Mental health is an important thing, but trying to get help is $300. I have had doctors close the door in my face because they just want money, and it’s like there’s no service for victims like me or Tamir Rice’s sister who witnessed her brother bleed to death while she was in the back of a cop car. If only we could have professional, affordable help that could walk us through grieving. I found a therapist in Manhattan, and she told me to come in and speak with her. After she heard my story and everything that’s going on she told me, “You know what, I’m not going to charge you, and if you need help and if I can help you, I’m going to help you.” That’s been the only break that I’ve had during my year and a half of searching for the right person who can help me. All of her services are free, and I’m very grateful for that.
What still hasn’t been said in your op-eds—what else do you want people to know?
Whatever comes to mind I just say it. I know a black woman who encourages black writing, and she’s inspired me to get better at writing. People who want to volunteer, everyone that’s on my team that’s been volunteering and helping me. They’re just helping me because they feel what I’m doing is important. They’re just as compassionate about helping me as I am compassionate about this movement.
In terms of that support, how does it compare with the justice system’s response to your dad’s death?
Well, I have a couple of YouTube videos, and in one of my videos I’m calling out the corruption, the crooked system, and the Department of Justice [DOJ], and telling them that their time is up. They’ve been giving my family the run around for a year and a half. We sat down on a city-wide panel where there was a representative from the DOJ. I asked him directly, if I was your child, and this happened to your family — would you still be asking us to wait after almost two years? I think by protesting and putting pressure on them, it’s been working to getting us an answer.
In the Breakfast Club interview, you say that people in Staten Island are brainwashed.
Yes, they turn the other cheek. I’ve been protesting with people for the past year, when this first happened with my dad. I was protesting Tuesdays and Thursdays. They were protests with people from Staten Island and people from all around the city coming to Staten Island. Everybody knows that Staten Island is like a different borough. Staten Island is made up of mostly white people in the south shore, and they just don’t do anything. They don’t do anything. They just going around to the north shore where the black people are, and black people on Staten Island, they’re so used to it they don’t see what’s happening.
Your family is originally from Brooklyn, right? When did they move to Staten Island?
My father wanted my little brothers to have a better life, or what he thought would be a better life and better schooling in Staten Island, so they moved out there. My father had only been living there for seven years. He’s from downtown Brooklyn.
Staten Island is far out there.
A lot of people that live in the city used to complain a lot about coming to my protests and they tried to get people to move it because it’s far. A lot of people can’t travel out to Staten Island. It can be an hour or two hours depending on where you’re coming from. It’s cold, and then getting over the bridge is $14 and a lot of people can’t afford paying that much money. They wanted to move it closer, but it means so much to me to have it in Staten Island because nobody else has protested out in Staten Island because they are scared. But I’m not scared. All I want to do is to go up against them and show them that Staten Island will not forget my father. I want it to be known that I’m out there with completely dedicated people who are supporting me. It’s one person holding the camera and me and another person walking down the street.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.