As Erica Garner is laid to rest Monday, I will miss her warrior spirit. I will miss her way of barreling through and demanding to be heard. She was a meaningful activist whose voice resounded because she spoke with heart and because of the moral power she derived from being the daughter of the murdered Eric Garner, killed by a police officer’s chokehold.
I am glad we all got to know Erica, but then again, we all got to know her because she was living out a family tragedy on a national stage, and I wish that had never happened to her. That would mean we never would have known her, but then she would still be here for her two children.
Eric Garner’s death might have been swept under the rug if not for the video. Just as the macabre images of Emmett Till’s inhuman-looking head fueled a revolution in the 1950s, now the video of Garner’s death has propelled a modern rebellion.
The ubiquity of video cameras has allowed people to report their lived experience more effectively and allowed them to show the world how police treat them. Who can honestly deny the prevalence of police violence when so many images of black death are in heavy rotation on cable? There’s Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Philando Castile and John Crawford and on and on, together forming one giant snuff film—like that gory old compilation Faces of Death—where officers are predators and blacks are gunned down in vicious modern-day lynchings.
I watch all the killing videos I can find because I have to know. What happened exactly? I’m unable to shy away from the pain—I have to know. I can’t let myself hide from reality no matter how harsh it is. So I watch and watch even as I feel the overload of such videos in my mind is making me sick. I keep on watching, like many people do. I have to know.
But then again, many of them are hard to avoid—they pop up on cable news all the time, played over and again, pushing the line between giving us reality and giving us violence porn. But what impact is watching these videos over and over having on all of us? What does it do to us to have in our short-term memory a trove of real videos where black people are killed in horrifying ways?
I can only imagine the pain of the family. Erica Garner is dead the year after the death of Venida Browder, mother of Kalief, who killed himself after being held on Rikers Island for three years for a crime he did not commit. Erica once told an internet talk show host that Venida “died of a broken heart. She had heart problems because she kept on fighting for her son. Like, I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything, ’cause this thing, it beats you down.”
Racism can kill you in a myriad of insidious ways.
Eric Garner’s death came from him being squeezed by two ends of the system. He was selling cigarettes because he’d noticed a hole in the market. In 2001, New York City imposed massive cigarette taxes, adding $6 to the price. This was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s way of creating needed income—after 9/11 it cost the city $1 billion to help Wall Street, and part of how he planned to make it up was through $250 million a year from smokers—an extremely regressive tax.
“The Wall Street cleanup,” writes Matt Taibbi in his recent book I Can’t Breathe, “was going to be paid for in part at least by a surcharge on cartons of Kools and Newports.” But with packs of cigarettes costing $14 in New York and $5 in Virginia, there was an opening for an industrious person. Eric Garner stepped into that void, traveling to Virginia to buy lots of packs, and then selling them in New York for $9, thus making enough to take care of his family.
But Garner was committing a misdemeanor in the era of Broken Windows policing, a philosophy that boils down to having zero tolerance for even the smallest of crimes, as if serious crime is combated by stopping graffiti, fare jumpers, broken tail lights, and cigarette hawkers. Under Broken Windows, the police are about creating the illusion of safety more than the reality of it.
But there’s also this: A police lieutenant once told me that the police are not here to protect and serve—they’re here to generate revenue for the city. The choice of what to police almost always has an economic element: What will help generate the most income? Cigarette sellers like Garner are cutting into the millions the city is trying to extract from New York’s poorest so they can pay for cleaning up the industry filled with the city’s richest.
So this Garner saga isn’t just about cigarettes and chokeholds. It’s about policing and taxation and the ways we treat black communities as disposable in order to make life better for rich whites. And it’s about how racism is a multi-generational killer that destroys families. Erica is dead because Eric is dead and he’s dead because he was black, which put him in a life situation where he had to sell cigarettes to survive, which put him in constant contact with the police. Both Garners are victims of the system, their bodies too human to deal with its crushing power.
As Erica told us, “this thing, it beats you down.” I hope now she has some peace. But I worry about her two children. Eric’s death had a transformative impact on Erica’s life, and Erica’s death will have a profound impact on her children’s lives. And on and on, racism metastasizing through black families like a vicious cancer, the deprivations of each generation weighing down the next in a horrible, unavoidable inheritance.