Erica Garner has died at the age of 27. She had been fighting for her life after a crippling heart attack just before Christmas.
Garner emerged as a crucial voice in the Black Lives Matter movement after her father, Eric Garner, was choked to death by an NYPD officer in Staten Island for the crime of selling loosies on the street. She spoke truth to power, loudly and often. As Breanna Edwards writes,
Erica Garner was indeed a force to be reckoned with, occupying space and speaking out loudly against police brutality ever since her father’s July 2014 death. She was unafraid, unabashed and unapologetic about what it was she was fighting for.
Mere months after her father’s death, Erica staged a “die-in” at the very same location in Staten Island where he had a confrontation with police, leading to his death, even as he pleaded with NYPD officers, “I can’t breathe.”
Eric Garner’s last words became the rallying cry for a movement, as protests swept the entire nation. His death was followed weeks later by Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter Movement.
After Garner suffered her heart attack and slipped into a coma, Shaun King tweeted a link to this piece by Christen Smith, published last year. Smith uses the occasion of Diamond Reynolds’ live stream of her partner Philando Castile’s execution to explore the traumatic effects of state violence on those who witness their loved ones being killed by it:
It is difficult to imagine the pain of witnessing and archiving the death of a loved one. It is even more difficult to imagine what this must be like when a police officer is pointing a gun at you in front of your four-year-old child. The only word that comes to mind for me is terror, although I am sure that is inadequate. One thing I am sure of: When Philando Castile was killed on July 6, he was not the only victim of police violence in that car. The trauma that Diamond Reynolds and her young daughter experienced marks them as victims as well.
If we as a nation want to truly address the problem of anti-black police violence, then we must shift our national discussions from simply tallying the body count of the immediate dead to assessing the traumatic and long-term deadly effects on the living.
One of the critiques movements like #SayHerName have made of our national discussions of anti-black police violence has been the tendency to focus on the deaths of black men. Yet, while black men disproportionately die from the immediate physical assaults of police(bullets, baton blows, Taser shocks), I believe black women die slowly from the long-term effects of this violence. Like a nuclear bomb, the initial death toll is only a fraction of the eventual body count. Fallout kills those in the vicinity of police violence like cancer over time.
The repeated, public and spectacular killing of black people by police reverberates. Communities, witnesses and family members suffer immeasurable, debilitating pain in the wake of these confrontations.
Diamond Reynolds’ cries as police officers threw her still-recording phone and arrested her rather than comfort her in the wake of Castile’s death encapsulate this trauma. The small voice of Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter, who witnessed the shooting from the backseat of the car, punctuates it as well. The torture of having to relive death by recounting it or witnessing the shooting repeatedly on television and social media compounds this suffering in the days and months after the dead are long gone.
We know from the stories of black mothers who have lost their children to state violence that the lingering anguish of living in the aftermath of police violence kills black women gradually. Depression, suicide, PTSD, heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating mental and physical illnessesare just some of the diseases black women develop as they try to put their lives back together after they lose a child.
To be sure, the police also kill black women directly. At least 15 black women were directly killed by the police in 2015. We must not ignore them. However, if in addition to those deaths, we count the victims of slow death, then black women may well be the population most impacted by police violence.
Smith’s insights resonate with my own research on policing and police violence. One of the things that I tried to hold at the front of my mind as I wrote my book was the degree to which violent, harassing, and humiliating acts by police officers against individuals rippled outward across families and entire communities. The trauma is not just individualized. It is expansive, collective.
We don’t know that Erica Garner died because of the trauma of her father’s death or the stress and strain of her ensuing activism. We cannot construct an alternative reality in which Eric Garner was not executed by uniformed officers on the streets of Staten Island, with all the ensuing effects that his death had on his daughter and her life. Nevertheless, even if Eric Garner’s death did not directly cause Erica Garner’s (a point that I do not concede), she was a victim of state violence.
Say her name.