Erica Garner is on life support, but her tireless pursuit of justice for police murder lives on

Eric Garner's radical daughter clings to life after a heart attack at just 27 years old.

Erica Garner, the brash reform advocate whose father Eric was killed by New York City police, is on life support after a massive heart attack two days before Christmas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Erica Garner, the brash reform advocate whose father Eric was killed by New York City police, is on life support after a massive heart attack two days before Christmas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Erica Garner is on life support after suffering massive brain damage due to oxygen deprivation during a severe heart attack, her family said Thursday.

Garner, 27, has been a dogged advocate for change in the systems that allow police to systematically deprive black Americans of their rights, dignity, and even lives. Her father, Eric, was killed by New York Police Department (NYPD) officers in 2014 after they determined his agitation at being harassed for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street required a forceful, violent police response. The elder Garner’s dying words — “I can’t breathe” — became a powerful mantra for the reform advocates and street protesters who organized under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.”

In the years since her father was killed, Garner struck a potent and sometimes contrasting figure within the movement. Women like Sybrina Fulton, Geneva Reed-Veal, Maria Hamilton, Lucy McBath, and Garner’s own grandmother Gwen Carr were dubbed the Mothers of the Movement, and embraced by mainline Democratic Party officials and events. That position made them hugely influential to a mass audience, but imposed some trade-offs with regard to the tone of their speech (though not the content of their critiques).

Garner chose a different path for wielding the unwanted fame and influence her father’s killing afforded her — establishing a vituperative edge that arguably expanded society’s definition of what a black woman who loses family to police abuse is allowed to be, how she is allowed to process her pain and anger.

To call Garner “unafraid” would be both backhanded cruelty to those survivors of black pain who make different choices, and damnably faint praise of her own style. A better word, perhaps, is “brusque.” Her unvarnished public mode suggests a woman living in conscious defiance of American life’s crushing tendency to bottle up women of color. When she’s decided something needs to be said, and that she ought to be the one to say it, the contents-under-pressure reality of that societal bottling is often on immediate display.

“Just cause you love black pussy don’t mean you love black lives,” Garner once said to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on Twitter.

De Blasio, whose wife Chirlane McCray is African-American, had for years stymied the release of police disciplinary records on Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who applied a choke hold to Garner’s father as he was being interrogated for selling loose cigarettes.

The hold and subsequent violence triggered a sequence of medical crises that killed the elder Garner while Pantaleo and fellow officers looked on. Civilian Complaint Review Board records showing Pantaleo had been kept on the street despite residing in the top 5 percent of NYPD disciplinary complaints for years were later obtained and published by ThinkProgress.

Both city and federal investigations into the killing of Garner’s father stretched on for years without producing clarity or accountability to either the family or the general public. After meeting with Department of Justice officials earlier this year, Garner said Trump administration officials told her they had made more progress on her dad’s case in six months than the Obama administration had in nearly three years.

As is her general habit, Garner grappled with that news openly, for anyone to see. “I dont understand how #obama and #lynch could hold my dads case for 2.5 years and not make it a priority … Dog, I hope this is fake news,” she wrote in one tweet.

In others, she said Trump officials were threatening to charge her with a crime if she released a recording of the staffers’ claims to have outdone the Obama team in pursuing justice for the Garner family — an outlandish thing to hear coming from employees of a man who has repeatedly encouraged police to seek revenge against critics, slandered black America, and thrown his lot in with the right-wing backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement to which Garner was such a crucial icon. (Obama told Garner face to face that he wanted to avoid appearing to politicize the investigation, something Trump would likely be less averse to.)

Garner has been no less pugnacious and direct on matters further afield from the investigations into her own father’s killing.

“If our lives really mattered, we’d have equal access to decent jobs, good schools and affordable housing. If our lives mattered in this country, we’d have equal access to clean air, clean water and real investment in black neighborhoods,” Garner wrote in a Washington Post op-ed urging people to choose Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Noting that activists had forced almost everyone in the country to at least know names like Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd, Garner blasted political exploitation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I resent politicians who speak their names without confronting the underlying problem,” she wrote. “I trusted establishment Democrats who claimed to represent me, only to later watch them ignore and explain away the injustice of my father’s death.”

Though doctors have declared Garner brain dead, she remains on life support. If this is to be her way of passing, it will add another tragic underscore to the causes and ideas she advocated so radically in recent years.

There is ample and clear evidence that merely trying to exist as part of America’s vast underclass causes quantifiable psychological harm. Beyond the well-understood reality that underfed children will struggle to reach their intellectual and social potential, there is now evidence that the stress of living in poverty — even apart from nutritional issues — imposes roughly the same mental health costs as pulling an all-nighter every night, forever.

Black Americans of all economic classes suffer a special, separate socio-psychic pricetag. Suspicious white citizens, wary store clerks, and trigger-happy cops make day-to-day life additionally stressful — whether you’re a man like Eric Garner trying to make ends meet on a Staten Island street corner, or an Ivy League professor like Henry Louis Gates getting cuffed on your own front porch because a nosy neighbor assumed you didn’t belong in such a ritzy neighborhood.

Dubbed “racial battle fatigue” by the academic William Smith more than a decade ago, this pattern of low-lying anxieties and traumas actively damage the mental and even physical health of men and women who look like Eric and Erica Garner. Though the American Heart Association may assert that you can always control your blood pressure, the research Smith and others have conducted indicates that’s not quite true if your mere presence prompts people to clutch their purses tighter, lock their car doors, or punch “9-1-” into the phone and then wait with their finger on the keypad.

The kind of massive coronary that put Garner on life support days before Christmas can have any number of physical causes. But to be black in America is to live with higher stress levels, higher blood pressure, worse overall health outcomes, and greater risk of premature death. It also, as researchers like Smith have demonstrated, means a much higher risk of living with “generalized anxiety disorder” — an acute but prolonged set of harmful mental stressors that have serious physical repercussions.

After multiple news outlets reported that Garner has no chance to recover from her condition, representatives for her family rejected that prognosis and began retweeting prayers from her Twitter account. They asked her fans and supporters not to contribute financially to any fundraising efforts in her name for the time being.

On the day of her heart attack, Garner reminded her audience of the long legacy of racist exploitation in American politics with tweets about GOP strategist Lee Atwater and the ugly “southern strategy” he crafted alongside Fox News founder Roger Ailes when the two worked on George H. W. Bush’s successful 1990 presidential campaign.

Garner outlived both Ailes and Atwater, but never let anyone forget that America still lives in their shadow.

Update 12/30/17: Garner’s official twitter feed announced on Saturday morning that she passed away.