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Christen Smith: The Fallout of Police Violence Is Killing Black Women Like Erica Garner

StoryJanuary 11, 2018
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During Erica Garner’s funeral, the Reverend Al Sharpton talked about Erica’s unflinching determination to get justice for her father. Sharpton said, while they say “she died of a heart attack, no, her heart was attacked that day,” referring to July 27, 2014, the day police killed her father, Eric Garner. In her recent article for The Conversation, titled “The fallout of police violence is killing black women like Erica Garner,” University of Texas at Austin professor Christen Smith writes, “When we think of police lethality, we typically consider the immediate body count: The people that die from bullets and baton blows. The death toll gives the impression that black men are the disproportionate victims of police killings. But these numbers do not reveal the slow death that black women experience. The long-range trauma police brutality causes can be as deadly as a bullet. The pain of loss kills with heart attacks, strokes, depression and even anemia.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the larger health impacts that police violence and trauma have on families, communities and black women, in particular. During Erica Garner’s funeral, the Reverend Al Sharpton talked about Erica’s unflinching determination to get justice for her father. Sharpton said, while they say, quote, “she died of a heart attack, no, her heart was attacked that day,” referring to July 27th, 2014, the day police killed her father, Eric Garner. Erica spoke often about the toll that her fight for justice took on her. This is Erica speaking on Democracy Now! in 2016.

ERICA GARNER: Well, when you deal with grief, when you talk about grief and you talk about family and how regular families deal with it, you know, families have problems. Family has trouble to—with coping with it. But it makes it so different because now we are part of this national scale. … I still haven’t accepted that my father is gone, even though I talk about my dad, but I talk about him in a case study, like I’ve been studying his case. For the latest updates, you can go to my website or to Twitter, OfficialEricaGarner.com or OfficialErica on Twitter. And, you know, you can see I’m constantly reading articles and doing the research on my dad’s case. But I’m not taking care of me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest has been studying the effects of stress caused by police violence and trauma on black women. Christen Smith is associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology at University of Texas—Austin. Her recent article for The Conversation is headlined “The fallout of police violence is killing black women like Erica Garner.” Smith is also the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil.

Professor Christen Smith, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about Erica Garner’s death and the stress, that she did acknowledge, and the horror that she faced, brought upon her. She did not ask to become an activist, but she spent the last three years of her life fighting for justice in the killing of her father, police chokehold death of her father, Eric Garner.

CHRISTEN SMITH: First, let me say thank you for the invitation to come here and speak about this today. I think this is an extremely important issue.

When I heard that Erica Garner had had a heart attack, I was devastated. And I was devastated primarily because I thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness, this is happening again.” I’ve seen this happen so many times before. So, basically, when the police kill someone, we only think about the impact that that death has in the moment. We think about the bullets. We think about the baton blows. We think about the tasing. We think about the beating. But we don’t think about the lingering effects.

And so, for me, police violence is like a nuclear bomb. The initial blast is only a fraction of what is here to come. And so, in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, we know that we have fallout. And the trauma of police violence is like fallout, and it kills you slowly like the cancer that kills you because of fallout.

And when I listen to Erica Garner’s stories and when she talks about her trauma—and she talked about it a lot, in many interviews. And in one of her last interviews, she talked about the fact that she—this was beating her down and having effects on her health. And she talked about the fact that—you know, look at Venida Browder, who was Kalief Browder’s mother, and look at what the stress did to her. And for those who don’t know, Venida Browder passed away in October of 2016, 16 months after her son Kalief committed suicide. And so, Erica Garner knew—

AMY GOODMAN: Committed suicide after he was held at Rikers Island for three years. He had never been tried, eventually simply released, was beaten in jail and ultimately committed suicide.

CHRISTEN SMITH: Absolutely. And that devastating case—when Erica spoke about that devastating case, she knew that there was something going on with her that was resonating with what happened to Venida Browder. And that’s just devastating. And so, the trauma was literally weighing down on her. And she was aware of it. And I think that one of the aspects that makes her death so very tragic, in addition to all of these other things, is the fact that she knew that this stress was really taking a toll on her health. And she told us multiple times before she passed away, “Look, this is hurting me. I’m hurting.” And that, to me, says that this is a tremendous problem that we need to start to look at. Black women are dying in the aftermath of police killings, and we are not counting them in the death toll. We are not thinking about them as the victims of police violence. And we must. As far as I’m concerned, the Garner family lost two people to police violence: They lost Eric Garner, and they lost Erica Garner.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Smith, could you say, very quickly, what kinds of resources do you think should be made available to families whose family members have been subjected to police violence?

CHRISTEN SMITH: First of all, I think that most of these families are not—do not have access to the proper care. And so, in my research, I’ve talked to families who have lost family members to police violence. In particular, I’ve talked to the sister of Larry Jackson Jr. here in Austin, Texas, who was killed—and Larry Jackson Jr. was killed by a police officer in July 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

CHRISTEN SMITH: And after that, I had long conversations with her. I think that what we need to do is offer therapy. That therapy needs to be free. And we also need to be able to do the research that we need in order to know what—the extent of this problem. We don’t have sufficient data, on a national scale, to be able to know what’s going on. So, in order to address this, the families need therapy. They need free therapy. They need support. And they need support from society in a way that they are not going to have to bear the burden of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation, post it online at democracynow.org. Professor Christen Smith, thanks for joining us. Thanks for joining us on Democracy Now!

CHRISTEN SMITH: Thank you.

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