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How Eric Garner's Family Is Coping with Their Loss One Year Later

On the anniversary of one of the most notorious police killings in recent memory, Eric Garner's family looks back at a year of grief and activism.

by Kristen Gwynne
Jul 20 2015, 4:08pm

Eric Garner's mother Gwen with the moms of other black men killed in confrontations with law enforcement figures. Photo by the author

According to his daughter Emerald, Eric Garner "was very family-oriented" and "always loved a big gathering or a big family function." Sunday dinners were a regular tradition—in fact, Emerald had just finished talking about on such get-together with her mother, Esaw Garner, on the day of her father's death.

When the 23-year-old got another call from her mother immediately, she initially thought it was a pocket dial before she heard crying on the other end of the line.

"They said your father's not breathing," Esaw told her.

Related: Nine Months After He Filmed Eric Garner's Killing, the Cops Are Trying to Put Ramsey Orta Behind Bars

"A few hours later, we found out there was a video," Emerald said this weekend, as several events across New York City marked the one-year anniversary of her father's death on Staten Island.

"While everybody was distracted," Emerald slipped into another room and looked up the video online, but only made it halfway through before she "couldn't take it anymore." She never watched it again. "It's not something I want to replay because when I listen to video, it sounds like when I used to speak with him on the phone," Emerald told me.

The pain was too unbearable.

"People really take to it when they see strength in a tragedy." –Emerald Garner

The video that documented the chokehold that killed Garner and captured the last words he uttered 11 times before losing consciousness—"I can't breathe!"—quickly spread across the internet and sparked outrage nationwide.

Still deep in her despair, Emerald was suddenly thrust into the role of a spokesperson. Juggling grief and activism was not—and is not, a year later—an easy task. But the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to mitigate her grief, and allowed her to pay homage to a father she says "always provided for us."

Emerald said there were times she hit bottom, wondering, How am I gonna live? ... I'm a spectacle now in the media –like, I just want to end it at all. But fighting for justice after her father's death helped her cope.

"I've had those thoughts, but then it's like, 'No, I don't want to die. I want to stay around a little longer so I can use my voice and turn my anger into action,'" she said.

She hopes she can encourage others—especially young people—who might be feeling hopeless, angry, or even suicidal to "not give up" but, like she did, "use their anger as action."

"People really take to it when they see strength in a tragedy," Emerald Garner said.

Being just one of six siblings, she said, has been helpful because the family can split up responsibilities and take breaks when they feel overwhelmed: "If I need to take my time and get my emotions together, I know there will be somebody out there on the front line, and I can say, 'Thank you for handling this. I needed time to get myself together.'"

Emerald has also enjoyed support from other victims of police violence—people she believes when "[they] say wholeheartedly, 'I know how you feel and one day you'll start to feel better.'"

That sense of community was on display Saturday as Eric Garner's mother Gwen Carr shared the stage at a rally in Brooklyn's Cadman Plaza with the mothers of Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Trayvon Martin, and other black men who died at the hands of law enforcement types. "You see my warriors behind me," Carr said, "Together we will stand and we will win this fight. They may knock us down but they're not going to knock us out because we are going to endure until the end."

"Y'all keep me empowered to speak... I feel like a flat balloon until I see you. You inflate me, and you make me larger than I could ever be." –Esaw Garner

The support that's poured in from across the country and even the world has helped the Garner family heal, and encouraged them to keep fighting. "To actually talk about it and hear the people, hear their responses, all in a positive manner, everybody so supportive, makes it a whole lot easier," Emerald said.

Echoing that sentiment while thanking the audience for their support at Saturday's rally, Garner's widow Esaw said, "Y'all keep me empowered to speak... I feel like a flat balloon until I see you. You inflate me, and you make me larger than I could ever be."

Emerald told me the main focus of her activism is to push the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) to indict and hold accountable the officers who caused her father's death, but she also plans to use her father's legacy to support other families in the same situation.

"My vision is to make sure nobody ever forgets Eric Garner and that they know what type of person he was. He was a very giving person, always liked to help people," Emerald said. She hopes to honor that part of him with her work, including with the Eric Garner Foundation, which she says will assist "the families and the victims and the struggles they go through, because living with life after a tragedy like this is very hard.

"Some people they grieve so much they miss work. They lose their job. How are they going to live—how are they going to support their families, their children?" Emerald asked.

A single mother, Emerald had been a manager at Payless shoes for two weeks before her father died. "I ended up having to leave because of the schedule and my up days and my down days didn't allow me to be at work as much as I needed to," she said. "If I can do a fundraiser for the victims and their bills will be paid off for a year, they won't have to worry about that. They'll know that their fight will only be for justice."

The Garner family's fight for justice notched a few victories over the past year. Last week, the family received a $5.9 million wrongful death settlement from the City (which Emerald stressed is not "justice" because it fails to provide accountability), and earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing the state attorney general as special prosecutor for police killings of unarmed civilians.

Garner's death helped spark the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country, a movement that has been dubbed one of the more substantial and enduring since the 1960s.

That movement has laid bare the need for policing reform—an issue Emerald remains committed to—and attracted the attention of many local elected officials. Over the weekend, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilperson Jumaane Williams, and others showed up to demonstrate their dedication to improving community relations with police. Jeffries said that this effort must focus on ending the NYPD's reliance on the broken windows theory of policing, which targets low-level, misdemeanors as a means of preventing more serious offenses. Many have linked the approach to the NYPD's overreaction to Garner's history of illegally selling loose cigarettes.

"It unnecessarily targets people in communities of color for things like riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, taking up two seats in a subway car, or having an open container on your front porch during a hot summer night," Jeffries explained.

Garner's killing was a tragedy, and no amount of policing reform will fill the void left in his family's hearts. But the movement that emerged after his death gives his relatives a sense of purpose, a support network, and a mechanism to keep his memory alive. It has also sparked a crucial conversation about race and justice in this country, and those positives were not lost on longtime activist Al Sharpton, who spoke at a vigil on Friday (as well as the rally on Saturday).

"Who would've thought, Emerald, that your father would be the impetus of a movement, that all over the world, people are standing up now?" Sharpton asked his audience. "Eric was wronged, but God has a way of taking wrongs to make the next right."

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