After Erica Garner’s Death, I Can’t Breathe Through the Tears
Three weeks before her death, anti-police violence activist Erica Garner spoke in an interview of the trauma and struggle that caused Kalief Browder’s mother to die of heart problems—literally, a broken heart. Browder was the 16-year-old boy from the Bronx accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 who then spent three years in an adult prison, often in solitary, without being convicted. After he was released, he struggled with mental health and eventually took his own life.
In the interview, Erica discussed her own trauma of seeing her father, Eric Garner, killed by a New York police officer, her own health struggles, and the stress of fighting injustice since that summer day in July 2014.
“This thing, it beats you down,” she said to podcast and YouTube show host Benjamin Dixon. “The system beats you down to where you can’t win.”
Erica shared that she felt her father’s pain watching the viral video that shook the nation, showing New York police officer Dan Pantaleo putting her father in an illegal chokehold, killing him. “That same pain when he said he can’t breathe. That same pain when he said he was tired of being harassed” by police officers.
But the self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, the oldest daughter of Eric Garner’s children, stated emphatically, “It’s hard, but you have to keep going. No matter how long it takes, we deserve justice, and I want to get justice for other people.”
Erica was tireless in fighting for justice for her father, whose death was ruled a homicide, although no charges were brought against Pantaleo. She died fighting for police accountability and justice for others.
Like so many others’, my social media feeds were flooded with the news of Erica’s death on Saturday. People expressed their own pain, anger, frustration, and sadness.
But I had no words. I could barely make out my own emotions. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon of quick sentiments. I didn’t know Erica personally or professionally. I didn’t follow her work. My reaction was similar to when I saw the “I can’t breathe” video of her father’s killing, similar to when I saw the killing of Philando Castile, the killing of Terence Crutcher, the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
There was only numbness.
Maybe many words and many tears can spark a lot of people—tens of thousands, millions—to join the movement.
But now the tears won’t stop. I can’t breathe through the sobs.
I remember the fatal chokehold that took Erica’s father’s life. I remember the image of a Black child being gunned down by a police officer at the park. I remember the image of a Black driver being shot while reaching for his identification, his girlfriend screaming when he dies on camera, the sound of their 4-year-old daughter consoling her mother. “It’s OK, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” Pleading with her mom to stop “’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.”
I can’t breathe through all this remembering.
My tears will not bring her back, and they will not get the justice that she fought for so personally and passionately. But maybe these tears, along with these words, can touch a few hearts.
And maybe many words and many tears can spark a lot of people—tens of thousands, millions—to join the movement to end the oppression of marginalized people in their communities.
And maybe those people will propose legislation that refuses to give police violence a pass, that fully prosecutes wrongful acts of policing. This is something the Movement for Black Lives has already begun.
And maybe out of that will come the Eric Garner Law or the Tamir Rice Law, or pick a name—maybe just the Black Lives Matter Law, which sees to it that police officers are not allowed to just retire following an act of violence. Maybe this law will instead suspend them without pay during an investigation of a killing, a rape, harassment—any form of police violence. Maybe this law will encourage just and appropriate charges. And maybe convictions, too.
And maybe all the programs that have been proposed to actually train police officers in implicit bias and de-escalation will be mandated for every policing agency in the smallest town to the largest city—rural, urban, suburban, county, state, and federal.
I can’t breathe through all these maybes.
Erica died fighting for justice. Like her father, her heart gave out from the task. She died seeing the person who killed her father not be held accountable for taking his life unjustly.
I do not want to die knowing that I said nothing. Did nothing, knowing that oppressed people every day are dying unjustly at the hands of police, moving along with my days numb, as if that is just the normal way things are. It is not normal.
So I will fight through the numbness and the tears, and offer my words.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.