Eric Garner’s Widow Feels Like She’s ‘Being Attacked by the Police’
Esaw Garner, whose husband Eric was choked to death by the NYPD, talks new film “American Trial,” Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and how the cops won’t leave her alone.
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is an unscripted courtroom drama directed by Roee Messinger that stages the trial of Daniel Pantaleo—the Staten Island police officer who arrested Eric Garner in 2014 for selling loosie cigarettes using a fatal chokehold—with real prosecutors, defense lawyers and witnesses. In actuality, the district attorney’s office chose not to indict Pantaleo; Pantaleo had hoped for years to get back on the police force, but as of last year, was officially fired and will not receive an NYPD pension. American Trial seems to be the first film of its kind—not a documentary, and not quite fiction, but a reality staged in an unreality, or vice versa.
Among the real-life witnesses is Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner. When I first watched the trailer for the film, which featured the original video of Garner being killed as well as Esaw Garner on the mock witness stand, I was uncomfortable. The idea of staging an “objective” trial—with Pantaleo’s lawyers lining up expert witnesses to convince a jury (in this case, viewers) that Garner was on a debilitated march to certain death, chokehold or not—felt like an absurd instrumentalization of a broken system. When I saw the film, my ideas about the judicial system and what it could achieve in a case like this didn’t change, but my ideas about what the film itself could achieve did.
As a work of art, American Trial isn’t exactly a revelation, but what it provides on an emotional level for Eric’s family and friends brings to mind the possibilities for transformative cultural work. I spoke to Esaw, who is still close with Messinger, about her experience making the film, as well as what her life has been like since her husband’s untimely death.
How are you doing?
Esaw Garner: Emotionally, I’m OK. I just told my sister yesterday that I had my first dream about Eric [in a long time]. I haven’t dreamt about my husband in about three years, since the death of my daughter [the activist Erica Garner, in 2017]. And the other night I just had this vivid dream about him and I was like, wow. But other than that, I’m OK. Enjoying my home, and that’s about it. Enjoying the grandchildren, watching them grow up and everything. And my mom is still here, and I enjoy our day-to-day family life.
I’m glad to hear that. I saw the film, and it was a new experience to watch something in this kind of format. How were you approached for this project, and what were your first thoughts when you were asked to be involved in a kind of a mock trial that still feels real in so many ways?
We were participating in the March for Racial Justice across the Brooklyn Bridge. I was standing there, and there were so many people approaching me that day, but it was something about the way [Messinger] approached me and his sincerity when he was speaking to me. And for some reason, that day, so many people were giving me cards and saying, “Give me a call when you get a chance,” blah, blah, blah. So I was just sticking them in my pocketbook. And for some strange reason, when Roee handed me his card, I didn’t put it with the other cards. I put it with my money inside my wallet.
So, later when I went to get money out, his card just came out with the money and I said, Well, you know what? This is a young guy just starting out and wanting to do his first film. And he had just graduated from film school and his background—he’s Jewish and my mom is Jewish. So that [connection] kind of played a role in it. And when I spoke to him on the phone after that, he was so attentive and he was so into knowing how I was doing and how I felt.
And since then, he’s come to all family functions any time I call him. Even if he stays five minutes, has a glass of wine, and then says, “Esaw, I’ve got to go,” no problem. He even came to my housewarming when I bought my first home two years ago. So we’ve become friends in the process of making the film.
And I kept telling Roee, “I’m not an actor,” but he said, “But you speak so well and you carry yourself so well. You didn’t let any of the negativity [get to you].” Because I got a lot of negative responses from people, negative things that they said about my husband, and I didn’t let any of it bring me out of character and take me to the point where I was cussing folks out. I have no filter, as they call it; I say what I want to say when I want to say it. And you know, for me to evolve myself into this person in the media to where I wouldn’t be labeled as “ghetto” or “disrespectful” or—I’m outspoken, but I know how to speak and when to speak and to differentiate how I speak depending on who I’m speaking to at the time, and how to control my temper a little bit better.
I do remember seeing you in the media right after Eric was killed and being really impressed by how expressive you were on a national stage; that in this incredibly difficult moment you were very clearly communicating important ideas about justice and accountability. But there was, as you’re saying, a big shift from that initial press conference to your later media appearances. What was your thought process in deciding to communicate differently?
I felt like I wanted people to feel what I was saying and to understand what I was going through. Because it’s different when someone you love gets murdered and they don’t know who did it, and they gotta go, ask questions, and get witnesses and all that. But to know and to see it, and to feel it the way I felt... I was married to him for 26 years before he was murdered, never separated from him except for his little stints with the law, when he went to jail or whatever the case may be. But he was always there for me. So for him to get up that morning and give me a kiss and say, “Babe, I’ll see you later.” To tell him what I’m cooking for dinner because he loves to eat. And then to get a phone call saying, “Your husband is not breathing, come down here, [the EMS] is working on him; he’s not breathing.”
You mean not breathing? I know he got asthma. What do you mean breathing? Like, what’s going on? And to get that phone call, it was so devastating and even talking about it now, it’s still devastating to me because he was such a great dad and such a great grandpa. I’m so glad that my grandchildren got to meet him and that he did get to spend some time with them and they’ll never forget him. And he spent so much time with them that they know who grandpa is. You know, except the youngest one. But the girls, they know grandpa and my kids got to grow up with their dad.
He missed out on seeing my oldest son go to college and play his first college basketball game. He was so looking forward to seeing him play; he got the full basketball scholarship in 2013 and then he started school like two weeks after my husband got killed—it was crazy.
I knew that expressing myself angrily wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I needed to get to the people without showing my anger, just by showing my pain so people can feel how it feels to go through something like that. And the habit on national television for people to speak about him, even now—he’s in history. He made history and it’s crazy. My husband was a big basketball fan, a huge fan. He loved the New York Knicks. And to see Patrick Ewing and his name, to see Kobe Bryant, rest in peace, wearing his shirt, “I can’t breathe.” Seeing people all over the world say, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And knowing that… At first when they started to say it, I used to cry, every time I heard the slogan. For them, it was a cry of protest, but for me it was pain. Because those are the last words he spoke. It took me about a year, maybe a year and a half to be able to even hear the words “I can’t breathe” and not cry.
With the film, did you feel like you were finally at a place emotionally where you could participate? You spoke earlier about getting into character. Was it kind of like separating you in real life from you in the film?
No, because even though I knew the lawyers—the lawyers were real, you notice the prosecutor and all that—I was so angry. I was so angry at the questions, even though I knew ahead of time what was going to be asked and [how the trial would proceed]. But it was just so real to me. I actually felt like I was on the witness stand and I was so angry, I swear. I wanted to jump over the stand and punch the prosecutor in the face. I did. I did. I wanted to—I forgot her name, the one that played the prosecutor with the dark hair—when she was questioning me and she was saying, “Oh, well, he had these underlying medical issues.” That’s where I wanted to jump off the stand and punch her. That’s when I started crying and I just said, “I can’t take it no more.” I had to get up to stand. I couldn’t, I couldn’t sit there no more and listen to it. It was like they were faulting him for dying.
And that’s how I felt. I felt like they were putting him at fault. Especially when the doctor said (I don’t even remember if this was in the movie or in real life), “Oh, if he had lived, he would have died within a year because he had diabetes.” Who the hell are you to predict someone’s death?
That moment really struck me. It actually was in the film, where a doctor, an expert witness for the defense who never examined Eric, basically says that he was a ticking time bomb. With your reactions in the film you provide an image of humanity that is never allowed within the judicial system. The concepts of law and justice in our system are so contrived...
It’s crazy. There’s no other words to explain it. It’s crazy. Look at what’s going on in the world since President Trump. It’s just ridiculous. Ahmaud Arbery. Jogging down the street, shot to death. Look at the young lady, Breonna Taylor, an EMS worker—police shot her 22 times [while she was asleep] in her home. What would possess you to shoot somebody 22 times? It’s just crazy. It’s the same to me [as what happened to Eric].
I worry about my sons. I’m so glad that my sons are inside boys. You know, they play video games and they’re 20 and 25. They have no interest in running the street. It does not even bother them right now that they are quarantined. They got something to eat, they play video games, they’re inside all day and I don’t have to worry about them. I’ll take that over them gang banging and having me running back and forth to court and getting involved with police.
As for me, I haven't been on public transportation in over 10 years. Now that this happened [with Eric], I’m so afraid of the police. I don’t like police contact; I don’t want it. You know, I’ve had three incidents since my husband’s death with the police. I was in my cousin’s car and she ran a red light accidentally [while making a left-hand turn]. She was too far across the intersection to not go through the red light, too far to reverse. Just made the turn. The cop pulled her over. He looked in the car, he saw me, he said, “Oh, so you think you could do what you want to do because you have Miss Garner in your car?” And I’m like…
Then there was another incident where I was on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street just shopping and minding my business, in the phone store. I came out the phone store, and a cop looked at me and said, “Well that’s that bitch that had Daniel Pantaleo fired.” And I’m like, wow. Let me just get in this cab and get my ass back in the house. You know? It’s at a point where I feel like I have to be a hermit; I feel like I’m being attacked by the police. The third time was when I went to Staten Island—I hadn’t been back in a while [since I moved]—I got off the ferry and the police that were in the terminal were looking at me. Some of them say, “Hello, how are you Miss Garner?” And some of them just look at me. This look, like they hate me from the pit of their stomachs, from the gut.
How do you feel now that the filmmaking process is over and there’s going to be this unveiling of the “verdict” in a week?
I don’t even know how I feel about that because I feel that Daniel Pantaleo should have been prosecuted in the real world, and I think he should be in jail right now instead of trying to get his job back. He murdered my husband, you know, and not only him, the other five officers, the EMS workers that didn’t give him any help. I think they all should be prosecuted, but it’s too late for that now.
I’m not going to say I forgot about it, but I kind of put it out of my mind and I’m just trying to move forward with my life. It only comes back into fruition when I’m talking about the film and stuff like that. Then the memory starts to flood back. But for the most part in everyday life, I just try to move on and that’s it. Not that I’ll never forget, but I damn sure won’t be offering forgiveness. OK. That’s something that has never happened. You know, my mother-in-law [Eric’s mother Gwen Carr] could sit up there and say that she forgives now and all that, that’s her business, that’s on her. Me, I’ll never forgive Pantaleo or the other officers. There will never be any forgiveness in my heart for that man.
When you got involved in the film, did you feel like it was going to help you move on? What did you feel like it could do for you?
I just wanted a fair, unbiased trial, even though it wasn’t real. I just wanted my own self-satisfaction to see normal people with sympathy judge for themselves what they think should’ve happened. Never mind the law and all the rigmarole and all the technicalities and all of that. I just wanted to see some real human emotion from people who have sympathy. Not the people who say, “Oh he was resistant” or “He was not a good person in society, so he should be dead.” Cause I’ve heard that too.
That’s such a bizarre yet common thing—the people who move to think like prosecutors, just regular people who think that way. I always find that so alarming, the existence of people who think that the entire world should work like a severely punitive legal system—it’s really dark.
It's horrible. Because imagine if it was vice versa—if Eric was white and all of those officers were black. Or if the officers were white and Eric was white, too. Right? They had it out for him. That was not the first time that day he encountered Daniel Pantaleo. That was not the first time that he encountered Staten Island Police. And Staten Island is a racist borough anyway—let’s just put that out there. It’s racist. I lived on Staten Island nine years and I tell you, I never really traveled off Jersey Street or past State Street because Hill, South Beach, all that’s white. They’re all white and they don’t like black people. And I’m mixed. I told you my mom is Jewish—my grandfather was a rabbi. He [was ultra-orthodox]. But he married a black American woman, they had children, and my mother is a product of that. And my godparents are Italian from Italy. My godmother’s name was Angelina Martenico. I had an Uncle Dominick.
I have a diverse background, a lot of different nationalities in my family, yet I’ve never been subjected to such racist shit until I moved to Staten Island. As soon as it happened, I was out of there in two weeks. I was gone.
American Trial premiered at the New York Film Festival last year, and was released digitally on May 18. On May 21, there will be a virtual livestream Q&A where the verdict, decided by viewers, will be announced.