On the last weekend of 2017, America lost an extraordinary, outspoken activist, Erica Garner, who died at age 27 after suffering a heart attack. At such a young age, Erica had lived through some of our country’s darkest realities, emerging as a steadfast, tireless, and vital voice in the fight against racist police violence.
In July of 2014, like millions of Americans, Erica watched video footage of her father Eric Garner being choked to death by an NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo, while several other officers restrained him, ignoring his repeated pleas for help. Although the city’s medical examiner ruled Eric’s death a homicide, Pantaleo was not indicted, and both he and his partner Justin Damico remain on the city’s payroll to this day.
Faced with such a cruel, far too common miscarriage of justice, Erica Garner mobilized. She led twice-weekly marches from the NYPD precinct where Pantaleo and Damico remained employed to Bay Street, where her father was killed. She gave constant TV and radio interviews, led rallies, appeared at countless protests, and worked with politicians to push for actual change. In 2016, she considered running for Congress. “I want to, you know, be one of those elected officials that get into office and don’t turn their backs on people,” she told Democracy Now. “I want to be one who wants to hold people accountable and get the corrupted out.” Later that year, she threw her support behind Bernie Sanders, appearing in a heart-wrenching campaign video where she discussed the emotional toll of her father’s death. eri
“I just want to tell my truth. I’m never giving up, I’m never gonna forget, and I don’t want the world to forget what happened to my dad,” she said. “I’m behind anyone who’s gonna listen and speak up for us.”
Until her death last week, Erica Garner continued to share her story, to fight for justice for her father and for meaningful reform to ensure no others would meet the same fate. Those who had the honor of knowing her remember her compassion for others and her unwavering sense of justice above all else, but they emphasize that she was more than just a symbol: She was a fighter, yes, but she was also a grieving daughter and a mother of two who had given birth to her first son, Eric, named for her father, only four months ago.
“I just want to tell my truth. I’m never giving up, I’m never gonna forget, and I don’t want the world to forget what happened to my dad."
Johnetta Elzie, a Black Lives Matter mobilizer who became a citizen journalist and protester in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s murder, first met Erica in 2014. “I didn't look at her like, Ooh, inspire me,” she told Broadly. “It was just like: I see that you're a human being and you're doing this because you have to. You didn't choose to do this, life put you here. I feel like that was something that we had in common.”
Elzie believes that there’s an important difference between the labels “activist” and “protester.” Erica, she says, belonged to the latter group, consistently putting her safety and health on the line for the movement. “Activism, you can do that in all kinds of spaces. Protest is action,” she said.
Marissa Johnson, one of the co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, says she was most struck by the strength of Erica’s convictions, the way she never struggled with doing what was right just because it may have been unpopular—like when she publicly confronted President Obama about his failure to do more to end police brutality. “I really appreciated that about Erica,” she said. “It was just so much more real for her than having a big lot of Twitter followers and getting speaking engagements. This was really life or death. She was most impacted, the stakes were higher, so she was most willing to be on the ground with organizers she didn’t know, she was more willing to do controversial things and speak her mind.”
For Erica, the struggle for truth and justice always came first. Three weeks before her death, she gave an interview with the progressive podcaster Benjamin Dixon, in which she discussed the toll it had taken on her. “I'm struggling right now with the stress and everything, 'cause this thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can't win,” she said. “[But] I'm not giving up, and this is the fight. I'm in this fight forever. No matter how long it takes… We deserve justice, and I'm gonna get justice for other people.”
For many people, Erica’s untimely death is more than a tragedy: It’s a cruel representation of the way in which systemic racism does lasting harm to communities, to families, to individuals who struggle to cope with the traumas and stresses of being black in America. “One of the few things that really stood out to me was just how compact everything in her life was: growing up in a foster home, her father was killed by the police, she has a baby and was not fully supported the way she should've been after giving birth and postpartum, especially in an age when black women are dying at extremely high rates after giving birth and having babies,” said Elzie.
“I've been thinking about her kids,” she added. “That's part of what makes us do what we do. Because we know the world has to be a better place so this cycle doesn't repeat for these little black kids.”
The best way to honor Erica and her legacy, according to the people who fought alongside her, is to keep pushing for lasting change, to stay focused, to not accept weak compromises from the establishment. As Erica wrote in 2016: “When I demand justice, it’s never just for Eric Garner. It’s for my daughter; it’s for the next generation of African-Americans.”