American PainRemembering Erica Garner’s Short Life and Everlasting Activism

This article was published in Ghosts Issue #80 | Fall 2018

I only met her twice, but I knew her. I interviewed her in December 2015 and January 2016 for a March 2016 profile for Elle, and we kept in touch, though we never met again. I knew her uniquely American pain, and though we were from very different places, I understood where she was coming from. I knew her dreams because I shared some of them. But most important, I knew her heart.

Erica Garner died on December 30, 2017, at age 27. I was devastated by her death. I was heartbroken for her children: for her young daughter, who saw the video clip of her grandfather, Eric Garner, dying at the hands of the NYPD; for her young son, who will have no memory of her, just as my twin nephews have no memory of their father who was killed by the Dallas police when they were two weeks shy of 15 months old. From the moment I learned that Erica was gravely ill, all I could think about were the costs—financial, emotional, personal—of rebuilding your life after it has been shattered by police brutality. Life after losing a loved one to senseless violence feels like sitting in a charred house, sifting through ruin, searching for remnants of what is still good, what survived the fire. And that’s all you’ve got to build from.

When you lose a family member to police violence, you need money—lots of it. You need time, and people to hold space for you. You need a team to handle the PTSD that is acutely heavy the first few years. After Erica died, I tried to sort out what her absence would mean for her family, and how they would supply themselves with the immeasurable resources they’d need in order to live an even remotely “normal” life.

We lost our privacy

March 10, 2013, will always be the worst day of my life. I was 27 when my number was called. The Sunday before an interview for my dream job, my only sibling, Clinton Allen, was killed by Clark Staller of the Dallas Police Department. Staller shot Clinton, who was unarmed, seven times. And as in so many other police reports about Black people killed by those paid with our tax dollars to protect and serve, Staller claimed that he “feared for his life.” Like Daniel Pantaleo, the man responsible for Eric Garner’s death, Staller had a disciplinary record that should’ve kept him off the street. A few years before graduating to killing Clinton, Staller tried to run over a fleeing man with his squad car and then falsified his report. Pantaleo amassed at least four credible citations for abusing his authority before he killed Eric Garner.

Erica knew a lot of my story before I told her myself, which, in fact, was one of the reasons she agreed to speak to me. When I first met her in December 2015, she was only 25 years old, but she was in command of her role as Eric Garner’s daughter, and she knew what she wanted to accomplish. In person, Erica was much taller than I expected, and more soft-spoken than hinted at by the rich voice that drew a nation to chant “I can’t breathe.” Her eyes were very big and brown, and there was an endearing innocence and curiosity in her grin. At times she looked uncomfortably like her father, and I’m sure that simply seeing her face brought others back to the awful video that captured the last traumatic minutes of her dad’s life. There were moments when people would recognize her on the street and approach her, which struck her as sometimes weird and other times cool. Even at age 25, Erica told me she “[felt] like that 19-year-old who’s still a daddy’s girl.”

There’s a line of demarcation, a before and an after. Through these tragic events, we’d lost our privacy in the same delusional, fantastical way as people who hit the lotto. We were not celebrities, but rather two women who had, in our 20s, completely lost the public rights to our most personal and painful experiences. Most people will never know what it feels like to have that sort of information a Google search away, the entire world believing that the ubiquity of your tragedy gives them the right to an opinion—to tell you personally or the entire internet what they think of men they’ve never met, and sometimes, to wish death upon you too. Being a public person isn’t about paparazzi following you; it’s about whether or not you have any control over the dissemination of the most devastating things that have ever happened to you. Your privacy, among so many other things, is the cost you must pay to openly fight injustice and oppression.

It took a while for Erica and me to arrange our first phone call; there were a lot of messages and back channel vetting, which I understood. Families who have been victims of police brutality can be extremely reluctant to speak on the record. Too often, they find their pain reduced to a brief sound clip or their words completely twisted. My family and I went through that, too. Fortunately, Erica had a supportive team that cared about her, and they did not want her to be used by anyone, especially journalists.

SHE LOST HER FUTURE

Erica spoke with fluency about her future, which she wholeheartedly expected to arrive at. In December 2015, she was mulling a run for Congress against Daniel Donovan, the former Staten Island district attorney who refused to indict her father’s killer. Some people privately ridiculed her decision, but Erica was serious about running for office, and she didn’t care what others thought. Erica knew that she faced a steep climb, but she wanted to force the conversation about her father’s death and state abuse at a time when already, she thought, people were forgetting.

I remember looking at Erica as she spoke into the microphone, at times huddled over it because the people sitting at the table next to ours in a Mexican restaurant were annoyingly loud, and thinking, This was Clinton. He was 25 when we lost him, and in the months before, he and I talked endlessly about the many varieties of man he might become. Could he, would he, become an actor? What kind of trade school should he go to? Maybe he could come stay with me for a while in Los Angeles? He ultimately decided to become a rancher, and if he had lived long enough, he would have joined his grandfather as a fifth-generation Texas rancher. Erica did not have dreams of becoming a rancher, but still she did list all the things that she might someday do with the breathlessness and confidence of a 25-year-old who believes that they have infinite time. But Black children become adults at 12, so Black 25-year-olds must pack in life as though they are in their twilight years.

Life after losing a loved one to senseless violence feels like sitting in a charred house, sifting through ruin, searching for remnants of what is still good, what survived the fire. And that’s all you’ve got to build from.

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Erica ultimately decided not to run after going over the logistics with her team. She had the whole world both with her and against her—and she knew it. And though the public may not have seen it, I could tell that the strain was affecting her. She was bone-tired, partly because she didn’t have everything that she needed. Movement building is financially, politically, and emotionally expensive. As Erica later did, and as so many Black women had done before us, I put aside my own PTSD, grief, and trauma and immediately organized and mobilized. I began gathering witnesses for my brother’s case the day after his murder, wrote his obituary, and helped organize his funeral. The first protest that I co-organized was about 10 days after we buried Clinton. I put aside my individual pain, like Erica did, because I realized that my family wasn’t the only family to go through the pain of police brutality and its aftermath.

In September 2013, nearly a year before Michael Brown Jr. died in Ferguson, I cofounded Mothers Against Police Brutality (MAPB) with my mother; for the next two years, I worked behind the scenes to fund, organize, and write articles about police brutality in an effort to bring the realities of the police state to the world’s consciousness. Being woke, at that time, wasn’t corporate cool. I spent almost $30,000 over the course of those two years. Erica and I spoke with a refreshing frankness about the costs of being one of the first on the front lines of Black Lives Matter: missing job opportunities, traveling to protests outside of our cities, paying for poster boards and markers, training other activists—without any hope of recompense. At times, Erica couldn’t afford basic feminine products, or had to depend on her grandmother’s pension and food assistance from the government.

“Still to this day, I’m on food stamps,” she said in our first interview in that noisy Mexican restaurant. “I live with my grandmother. She gets a pension every month, but even that, it’s not enough, but it’s enough to get simple stuff like hygiene products, cleaning products. When my child has an upcoming trip that’s $8, just like the simplest things…”

I was shocked, but unsurprised. Some of the grassroots activists that we worked with in Dallas were housing or food insecure. They were often working for a better America even while experiencing its worst on multiple levels. It bothered Erica that people would continually ask her about the family’s settlement money. Some of the more callous questions such as, “Why don’t you just get a job?” not only annoyed her but oversimplified the unpredictable nature of activism and dismissed the value of service work.

In her own words

A big part of your last year has been activism and campaigning. Do you feel that you would’ve been able to do this work while still having a “normal” job?
No.
 

Why?
‘Cause there are different schedules. [Sometimes] I could not be doing anything for two weeks and then, all of [a] sudden, y’know, a whole bunch of things come in. I remember one time I had to travel to four different cities in four days.
 

What was that for?
On panels and advocating on the behalf of, y’know, my dad, and getting the issues out there. It’s very time consuming and the hectic schedule, working as a cashier you already have a schedule, so to say, “I’m working these amount of days, can I have off?” is always a conflict…even getting called on your days off.

Now, there’s national momentum to encourage women to run for office, and I can’t help but wonder what Erica might have achieved had her prescience been supported. Clinton would have been 32 this year; in the America that we were owed, he should have been just finishing his mentorship under his grandfather and buying his own land to support cattle and horses. Erica’s birthday was May 29; in the same America that once enslaved her ancestors, she should be contemplating her run for Congress and bringing up her children. Instead, both Clinton and Erica, like so many others, are, unfairly, in the ground. This country does not deserve them.

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Capitalizing on misfortune

Erica loved the profile I wrote about her for Elle, but it didn’t come even close to capturing the multitudes inside of her, or what she was up against. I suppose I keep coming back to that point because in writing this, I’m reflecting bittersweetly on both her ability to pack a great deal of life into 27 years, and the fact that she had to. There is nothing sweet about her young, round face never growing more beautiful with laugh lines. And she had beautiful skin that she said she only used Dove soap on. Erica wanted to write a column for a publication because it would allow her to speak directly to the public and not in bite-size bits (like the then–140-character Twitter limit) or in 10-second clips on the nightly news. An op-ed column might also have provided some consistent income for her and her children. It was something that Erica spoke hopefully about each time we talked. She really wanted to speak to people directly.

She never got the opportunity to support herself by writing, but many, many outlets made money off her. She saw very little of it. (She told me that the Guardian was the only publication that paid her.) I tried to teach her how to write a pitch, so that she could get paid for her stories, but no one was interested in paying her to share her views. It broke my heart a little when I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, and she said, “Well, I want to do what you’re doing.” She had long-term goals of going to law school, starting her nonprofit, and telling stories. I wanted my editors at the time to see the wisdom in telling a larger story about Erica and other women like us, but they didn’t.

It’s not just that Erica could have used that money as a young woman and mother. She shouldn’t have been on public assistance in New York City, the world’s media capital, where someone could have hired her to write the column that she dreamed of. I know the extreme stress of fighting, sometimes alone, for justice. I believe that lack of access to the resources she needed hastened her premature death.

Erica Garner won’t be the last Black woman to be used by an industry that profits from her story while she is left to go without. This dynamic so darkly folds into the pervasive belief that a Black woman’s labor should be either free or severely underpaid. The news cycle can be sick, in its cold and indifferent turnover, and Erica had one of the “hottest” stories for a few years. A lot of publications profited, hugely, from the worst thing that ever happened to her. But the last years of Erica’s life were also part of a larger moment in history, and we are all the poorer because major publications weren’t invested in telling the full story of one of the most important activists of the early 21st century.

The last time I spoke to Erica was in June 2016, shortly before I left for London for six months. Erica wished me well and asked me to take pictures; London was one of the places she hoped to visit one day. I asked her to send me her mailing address so that I could send her a postcard, but to my lasting regret, we did none of these things. I felt such guilt, leaving her in the United States to fight, knowing how much she was doing alone. At one point in my second interview with her in January 2016, Erica asked me if I wanted to coalition-build with her, and I said yes, but that it would be some time down the road. I knew that I was a long way from being better—it was part of the reason I went to London—and now that MAPB had secured its grants and police brutality was on every media outlet’s radar, I needed to step away to take care of myself. I heard a bit of longing in Erica’s voice, and it felt like I was being airlifted out of a burning building while watching her wave from the window. And it is an unmitigating guilt, knowing that Erica died of exhaustion, and a broken heart, while I had a chance to begin to recover.

(Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Making it to 50

Erica and I had spoken about telling the next generation of activists what it was like to have been survivors of police brutality and state violence, about putting aside our grief and trauma to help build and sustain a movement. We had spoken about what that coalition building might look like as we got older. It was important to Erica that people know what it was like to lose in the way that we did—what it took to create from those ashes. I’m not yet nearing my 50s, but I already miss who Erica would have been in hers. I miss her because there will be no one there where she should be. It is a long, lonely walk without her. But my loss is nothing compared to that of her family, her children, who already miss her at levels that are beyond comprehension.

All we have now are her words, and the tremendous gifts that she left us: She taught Americans how to stand up and protest. Without the anti–police brutality organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement, there would be no Women’s Marches, no #MeToo in its current iteration. Erica gave everything she had in her—and ultimately, her life itself—to speak truth to power. Now it is our time to honor her. So many men who were not there building and birthing the anti–police brutality movement continue to take up space. I hope, as a tribute to Erica, that we stop giving men opportunities to speak on behalf of a movement that, until Ferguson, most Black men were uninterested in joining. It was, and is, Black women who have been marching and organizing and fighting since day one.

Erica’s organizing was consistent, her activism fearless. Her booming voice formed a prologue to the strong anti-Trump dissent. She was not always right, and she made mistakes, as many young and gifted people do, but I hope her children know that they had an amazing mother. I hope that this country never forgets her. Erica, I will do my best to keep my promise to you that future generations will know that we were there. Please tell Clinton that I miss him. Tell him that I will love him until China and Africa meet, and the river jumps over the mountain, and the salmon sing in the street. He’ll know what you mean. Please, please, Erica, be with your babies where you are. I will see both you and my own brother again one day, but it will be a while before I do, as I have promises to keep, and many miles to go before I sleep. I won’t let them forget. And no quarter shall be given.

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by Chaédria LaBouvier
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Chaédria LaBouvier is a writer and scholar of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. She is a former contributing writer for Elle.com, and a cofounder of Mothers Against Police Brutality.