Erica Garner’s Life and the Death Culture of White Supremacy

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Erica Garner, 27, died of a heart attack on December 30, 2017. Many close to her say she died of a broken heart — a heart broken by a violent white supremacist system that repeatedly demonstrated that her life, and that of her father, Eric Garner, did not matter.

Eric Garner was murdered when Daniel Pantaleo, the arresting officer, placed Mr. Garner in an illegal chokehold. While the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, and Garner’s death by the state became a national scandal, justice for the murder has never been served. Despite having a checkered past as an officer who abused his authority, he continues to enjoy full-time employment with NYPD. This was no accident. NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, the so-called “progressive,” prevented Officer Pantaleo’s previous disciplinary records from being used in the court proceedings. These could have helped the case for justice, and without them the Staten Island grand jury refused even to indict Pantaleo.

In response to her father’s death, Erica Garner became an ardent racial justice activist. She led twice weekly protest marches and die-ins to the site of her father’s death, and emerged as a key NYC figure demanding accountability for police killings of African- Americans. As author Ezinne Ukoha wrote, “She never stopped holding the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio accountable and spent the better days of her young life being an active justice seeker.” She was a tireless advocate for people of color whose lives had been destroyed by state violence, only to succumb to the impacts of state violence at age 27.

How did state violence kill Erica Garner?

Political scientist and commentator Melissa Harris-Perry, in Elle, clearly makes the case that Erica Garner’s death is attributable to institutional racism and state violence in America. State violence, physical and psychological violence, is enacted by the institutions in power on the most marginalized members of the population — Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color — who face outrageous mistreatment and discrimination through police departments, courts, schools, health cares and other powerful societal institutions.

The Movement for Black Lives Global Network sums up the myriad ways in which Erica Garner’s death is a result of state violence:

Erica died of a heart attack but her death was anything but natural; she died at the hands of a state that builds healthcare systems that neglect the needs of Black women and Black mothers in particular, a state that is engaged in a war on Black people, a state that has constructed and deploys a policing system that directly kills Black people and indirectly murders our families and loved ones by forcing them to engage in a never-ending struggle for justice under this current system. Erica’s death stands as a stark illumination of the ways in which police violence also takes an unimaginable toll on our families: emotionally, spiritually, financially, and physically.

The wounds from the criminal injustice system. Since 1980, before Erica’s father was killed by the NYPD in 2014, he had been arrested 30 times due to the NYPD’s misguided broken windows theory of policing. Disproportionately, it’s Black women and children, like Erica Garner, who suffer the most under the weight of oppressive policing and constant exposure to the criminal justice system, and on whom the criminal injustice system takes its most crushing toll.

The wounds from activism. Erica Garner was an activist with all her might. And while stress and anxiety of organizing takes a toll, organizers persevere because they know their lives, their families’ lives, and the life of their community depend on it. Ashley Williams, an organizer with the Charlotte Uprising coalition in North Carolina, puts it like this: “Police misconduct, poverty, and white supremacy do not take vacation days, so black activists feel like they can’t either.” Garner addressed her situation by stating “I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything, ’cause this thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down until you can’t win.” Still, she kept fighting.

The physiological wounds of racism and the U.S. healthcare system. At the time of her death Erica Garner was a postpartum mother of two, with a 4 month old. She lived in a country where maternal mortality is not only the highest in the developed world, but is also disproportionately higher for Black women, and higher in NYC than the rest of the country. After giving birth to her baby, Erica Garner was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. According todata from the National Center for Health Statistics, African-American women suffer rates of heart disease that are twice as high as white women; African-American women are also 30% more likely than white women to die of heart disease. “African American women live sicker and die younger than Caucasian women,” the study says, “largely as a result of heart disease.” Additionally, like her father, Erica Garner had asthma. A U.S. Department of HSS Office of Minority Health report found in 2015 that African-American women were 20% more likely to have asthma than white women, and African Americans were almost three times more likely to die of asthma-related causes than whites.

A call to action for white people… On one hand, stopping institutional racism and state violence seems overwhelming; on the other, doing nothing makes us complicit in the system’s well-being. As white people of conscience, it is our duty to continuously center, lift up, and support the fight for justice. With that in mind, we call upon white people to take action to interrupt the racism that exists at all levels and to stop being complicit in the white supremacist system. We must think beyond just “fixing the system.” For the white power elite who hold ultimate control, the system isn’t broken at all, and there’s only so much change they’ll allow. Institutionalized racism, with its attendant state violence, works quite well for those who prosper and benefit from the conditions that allowed Eric Garner to die and his killer walk free, or his daughter to die, no doubt from living a life where she was never meant to survive.

We MUST expand our consciousness and understand that the systems are working perfectly well to ensure that Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color are locked up and/or blocked out of society. Institutional racism dehumanizes Black bodies and allows police officers to feel a threat to their safety where none exists. Systems protect law enforcement officers who kill and denies justice to grieving families and communities. They mitigate against the physical and mental health, the economic security, physical safety, and overall well-being of Black lives. We must think beyond the limitations of oppressive systems to help imagine, create, and support new systems entirely.

Erica Garner supported the Movement for Black Lives; her tragic death is a reminder that each of us, particularly white people, must assume some level of responsibility to continue supporting the movement for Black liberation. One way to take action is to support the Movement’s policy goals, strengthening legislative efforts that bring justice to Black and Brown people. You can donate to the movement here.

It’s also important for white people to organize together in support of people of color led movements, in the ways they request. We must understand how we, even as white people of good conscience, participate in and receive material and psychic benefits from the white supremacist system, and therefore that we too are implicated in state violence. It’s our responsibility to ask, what are we willing to do? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to say? Are we willing to unapologetically say Black Lives Matter? Are we willing to give up some of our comfort to step into anti-racist action? Will we put our time and financial resources toward the liberation of Black people?Here are also some ways to think about the impact of Erica Garner’s death through the lens of reproductive justice and ways we can embolden ourselves to do better for Black women in 2018. Join us in fighting against white supremacy and supporting these efforts.