“I felt the same pain that my father felt on that day when he was screaming, ‘I can’t breathe.” — Erica Garner
Erica Garner was only 27-years old when she died on December 30, 2017. She was the mother of two children, one of whom was eight years old and the other just four months old. Ms. Garner became famous when father, Eric Garner, was murdered by New York City police on July 14, 2014. The killing was filmed and the world heard his last words, “I can’t breathe.”
Most police murder victims die unknown and their deaths are rarely even investigated. Garner was killed when thousands of people mobilized in mass protest across the country over the issue of police homicides. Because of that pressure the City of New York went through the motions of prosecuting his killer, Daniel Pantaleo. But the grand jury in the conservative and mostly white borough of Staten Island refused to indict. Pantaleo is still on the force and even received an increase in pay when he earned over time for court appearances.
Ms. Garner was left to deal with her father’s death as best she could. She was an ordinary young woman, inexperienced in political activism or media relations. Yet she overcame what would be considered short comings by taking the simplest and most basic action. She spoke up.
Barack Obama’s Justice Department only prosecuted two cases of police brutality and Eric Garner’s was not among them. Obama’s response to demands was phony, meant to give the appearance of action when none was taken. He sent scoundrels like Al Sharpton to Ferguson, Missouri but only for show. Obama would even meet with activists and family members when he thought he could get political cover by doing so. But he never gave Eric Garner or his family the justice that he had the power to give.
He met Ms. Garner on one occasion but because of her agitation. In July 2016 Alton Sterling and Philando Castille also died in on-camera police murders. In Dallas, Texas a man named Micah Xavier Johnson exacted revenge by killing five police officers in that city. Johnson was himself killed by police using a remote bombing device to do the deed. Gavin Long did the same in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, killing three police before he too died at the hands of other officers.
The realization that Johnson and Long changed the political conversation forced the Obama administration to hastily stage a dog and pony show entitled “The President and the People: A National Conversation.” Ms. Garner was invited to attend the nationally televised town hall along with other relatives of police murder victims. But the attempt at window dressing was not completely successful because she refused to be silent.
The ulterior motives were so obvious that Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors called the town hall “a shit show.” “It was honestly one of the worst experiences you could’ve put families through. It was all about apologizing about the cops, it was just a mess.” In short, it was vintage Obama. He wanted to dampen black people’s justifiable anger and put a happy face on the system’s criminality.
To her credit, Erica Garner exposed emperor Obama’s nakedness. Neither she nor any of the other families were permitted to ask questions. She loudly proclaimed that they had been used, “railroaded ” as she put it. She asked an important question, “A black person has to yell to be heard?” Of course the answer is yes. It has always been yes. When her words threatened to ruin the Obama effort at damage control she was allowed to speak with him briefly.
Video of the conversation shows him in all of his hollow glory. He was clearly uninterested in Ms. Garner, mouthing condolences but making excuses for inaction. He barely hid the irritation he felt as he was forced to speak with her.
But Erica Garner’s best efforts couldn’t move the system and she had challenges in her personal life as well. Early in 2017 she was pregnant and assaulted by her child’s father. According to her mother she was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and suffered a heart attack shortly after giving birth. A second heart attack on Christmas Eve killed her.
The stories of the survivors end this way all too often. They suffer trying to do what it is impossible, act on their own against a system that sanctifies police murder of black people. One could say that Pantaleo killer her when he killed her father. Then again the Obama administration chose not to give her justice and they were accessories too. As a black woman she lived in a society that didn’t value her life and that fails to provide basic health care outcomes. There are many perpetrators in this sad story.
But she isn’t alone. Ramsey Orta filmed Eric Garner’s death and police retaliated by setting him up in a drug deal. He is serving four years in prison and says he regrets having ever been involved. Erica Garner is one of many NYPD victims. Her story is one of bravery but also one of caution. Just weeks before her fatal heart attack she spoke of how “the system beats you down.” All too often the beat down is deadly.