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Erica Garner was “Unbought and Unbossed” in Push for Justice After Her Father Died in NYPD Chokehold

StoryJanuary 03, 2018
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We remember Black Lives Matter activist Erica Garner, who died Saturday after she fell into a coma following an asthma-induced heart attack. She was just 27 years old. Erica helped lead the struggle for justice for her father, Eric Garner, who was killed when police officers in Staten Island wrestled him to the ground, pinned him down and applied a fatal chokehold in 2014. His final words were “I can’t breathe,” which he repeated 11 times. In August, Erica gave birth to her second child, a boy named after her late father. Doctors say the pregnancy strained her heart. We feature Erica in her own words on Democracy Now!, and we speak with two people who were close to her: The Intercept’s Shaun King and The Root’s Kirsten West Savali, whose piece is headlined “Erica Garner: ’I’m in This Fight Forever.’”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the tragic death of Black Lives Matter activist Erica Garner, who died Saturday after she fell into a coma following an asthma-induced heart attack. Erica Garner was the eldest daughter of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old father of six who was killed in 2014 when police officers in Staten Island, New York, wrestled him to the ground, pinned him down and applied a fatal chokehold. His death was recorded by a bystander named Ramsey Orta on his cellphone. In the video, Officer Daniel Pantaleo can be seen placing Garner, who was unarmed, in the chokehold. As officers held him down, Garner cried out, at least 11 times, “I can’t breathe!” Those were his final words, and his daughter Erica made sure they were not forgotten, calling for justice and leading protests with the chant “I can’t breathe!” It was at one of these early protests that Democracy Now! first met Erica.

ERICA GARNER: I’m Erica Snipes Garner. I’m the daughter of Eric Garner.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?

ERICA GARNER: I’m 24. My dad was a loving man, he was a humble man, and he was a nice man. Like, he was very nice. I mean, you could never get a “no” out of him. Like, he did whatever he could for anybody who came around him. Anybody who came around him was, you know, touched by his graces. Seeing the videotape, I was very traumatized. I was very, like, horrified. It was horrible. Just seeing my father die on national TV was just horrible. You know, I’ve got to live with this forever.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to see so many people, more than a thousand people, out today?

ERICA GARNER: My father’s voice is being heard, and, you know, we’re standing as one. Everybody’s coming together for the right cause.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A medical examiner ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide, citing, quote, “compression of his neck (chokehold), compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” But in December of 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo, setting off protests that shut down parts of New York City, including the Brooklyn Bridge. At least 83 people were arrested. This is Erica Garner speaking after the grand jury’s decision, at the site of her father’s death in Staten Island.

ERICA GARNER: This is the spot that EMS workers and police officers failed us New Yorkers, because they let an innocent man die, beg for his life, fight for his last breath. And now, I have to come here every time I feel sad or every time there’s an anniversary or something. I have to come here and be his voice, because he cannot speak anymore. He kept saying, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” He couldn’t breathe. They continued to take my father away from me. And now, the man who took my father’s life wants to apologize to my family. I don’t even know how to respond to that. I’m not even going to respond to that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Erica Garner speaking in 2014 at the site of her father Eric Garner’s death from a police chokehold in Staten Island. During the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Erica Garner endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for president and appeared in an ad for his campaign. Last July, President Obama spoke to her directly, after she protested she had been railroaded when she was not called on to ask him a question during a town hall taping by ABC that she was invited to attend. Erica spoke about her own political aspirations on Democracy Now! just last year [ 2016 ].

ERICA GARNER: I want to organize black and brown—the black and brown folk on Staten Island. I want to knock on doors. I want to ask the people of Staten Island about their issues firsthand, because no one is talking about, you know, what’s going on in Staten Island. So, if I do decide to run for Congress, I want to, you know, be one of those elected officials that get into office and don’t turn their backs on people. I want to be one who wants to hold people accountable and get the corrupted out. I want to be able to treat—the same way how they treat whistleblowers, I want to be able to point out the corrupted elected officials and get them out.

AMY GOODMAN: In August, Erica Garner gave birth to her second child, a boy she named after her late father, Eric Garner. Doctors say the pregnancy strained her heart. Her Twitter account, run by her family and friends, says she went into cardiac arrest last week and suffered major brain damage from lack of oxygen. When she died Saturday, she was 27 years old.

To remember Erica, her life, we’re joined by two people who were her friends. Shaun King is with us here in New York, now a columnist with The Intercept and a writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and was previously the senior writer—justice writer at the New York Daily News. And via Democracy Now! video stream from Houston, Texas, Kirsten West Savali is with us, journalist, associate editor at The Root. Her recent piece is headlined “Erica Garner: ’I’m in This Fight Forever.’”

We want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! And, Kirsten, let’s begin with you. How did you meet Erica?

KIRSTEN WEST SAVALI: I met Erica in 2016 at Drug Policy Alliance partner gathering at Columbia University. And she was there making the connection between what was really a modern-day lynching of her father by the NYPD and the drug war, the war on drugs, and the occupation of black and brown communities. And we did not meet—as I mentioned in the piece, we did not meet as journalists and activists. It was about, you know, two women missing their fathers and just determined that they—you know, because my father passed in 2011—just determined to make sure their legacies did not die and that their names endured. And I saw that in her, and we connected over that.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the conversations you had then and what she meant to you in her activism and why you wrote this piece in The Root.

KIRSTEN WEST SAVALI: I wrote this piece because Erica was very resilient. She didn’t let her grief stop her. She didn’t let the rage become—make her immobile. She used it to lift her voice for a community of people. She was very, very—she was not afraid to stand alone. We saw that when she went—day in and day out, as she went back to the spot where her father was killed. She was not afraid to stand alone.

She was not afraid to not follow the trend, of particularly black women who were supporting Hillary Clinton during the election. And that was something that was not very popular to do. And she did not get a lot of support in that. And so, she was very clear. She was very clear about she was in the struggle for justice for her father. She was in it for justice for other communities. And she was just—again, I don’t know if she was unafraid, but she was very, very brave.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also said that people should not try to whitewash her legacy. What did you mean by that?

KIRSTEN WEST SAVALI: Yes. So, for instance, when we saw Mayor Bill de Blasio sending his condolences on Twitter. She was highly critical of him. And, you know, he was one of the ones who said that, because of an archaic law, that Daniel Pantaleo’s disciplinary records did not need to be released. And he has multiple strikes against him. We read about that now, the ThinkProgress piece that has those documents. We know about that now.

And so, when we see when someone dies, when a revolutionary dies, when someone who does not believe in political duopoly, who does not follow a political party, who does not toe the line, that is well behaved or someone who says what they’re supposed to say, what someone thinks they’re supposed to say, we see their legacies whitewashed. We saw that with Martin Luther King, how certain people, certain politicians, pull out “not to be judged by the content of my character—or the content of my character, but not the color of my skin.” We see that. And they don’t talk about him saying how white people, in particular, they think they’re special because they’re white. They don’t talk about how he said our most dangerous friend is not the KKKer, but the white moderate. And so, they’re able to kind of prop him up as someone to say this is how we feel about racial justice, this is how we should all come together. And Erica Garner was not about coming together for peace if there was no justice. And I think that needs to be very, very clear in anything that is said about her.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Shaun King, a columnist for The Intercept, welcome to Democracy Now! once again.

SHAUN KING: Thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about your relationship with Erica, how you first got to meet her, and her importance?

SHAUN KING: Sure. First off, the piece that Kirsten wrote was just beautiful. I mean, I don’t think any piece was more thorough and accurate. And there was a lot of inaccurate stuff that was said about her. And Kirsten’s piece was just—I read it again this morning. It really echoed my sentiments and heart. And so I’m thankful that she wrote it.

We started talking all the way back in 2014 just through Twitter direct message. And it’s funny that you get to know people through text message and direct message, sometimes without seeing them for months or years. And I didn’t actually see Erica face to face until we both started campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

But she was probably maybe my greatest defender and friend. I felt like we owed her to put ourselves out there to defend her. And there were many times where she came to my defense. And I miss her already.

I mean, there was just a fierce nature that she had. Kirsten said something that I said, as well: She was unbought and unbossed. I think, in a lot of ways, she was our Fannie Lou Hamer. She was—I even compare her to Hosea Williams, and just someone who spoke truth to power.

When she loved you, you knew it. You didn’t have to guess how she felt about you, good, bad or ugly. She was just an unvarnished voice. And she was a friend to a lot of people. There are a lot of people hurt right now. And we miss her already.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and, when we come back, hear more from Erica Garner herself. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute, as we remember Erica Garner.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Long Day is Over,” Norah Jones, here on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we are remembering Black Lives Matter activist Erica Garner. This is Erica speaking on Democracy Now! in January 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. Like everything we do is in the paper. We got people coming from the left field giving us bad advice, people coming in with their own agendas. And it’s like we are—we were thrust into the spotlight and was like out there. We don’t have union reps and people to represent us and tell us, “Well, you need to do this, you need to do that.” And, you know, my family has just been dealing with that, trying to stay organized and also deal with the fact that my father is gone and like nothing is being done about it.

And, you know, mental health is very important. If—you hear Bill de Blasio say, you know, it’s very important, and we need to do something about it. And it’s like families that’s put in my position, black families that’s on public assistance, that doesn’t have the income, to get therapy is $300 an hour, and I don’t think that’s fair, and it’s not made for the white—I mean, for the black population, because how are we supposed to cope with this if we don’t have someone to talk to, someone professionally to talk to? So, now my family is trying to figure out how—well, me, personally, I’m trying to figure out how can I, you know, get past that barrier and find someone to talk to to deal with this, because this is trauma. This is—my 3-year-old niece bashed a boy in the head with a book at school and said that “I’m angry the cops killed my grandfather. That’s the reason why I did it.” She wasn’t mad at the kid. But it’s—she’s so young, and for her to say that, it hurts my heart. And now she’s in—you know, she’s got to talk to someone out of her day care, whatever, and it’s just not fair. And we just need whatever put into place for mental health to take care of our mental health, because it’s very important. It’s very important, you know, dealing with grief.

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, 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: So that’s Erica Garner two years ago. It was January of 2016. And we’re continuing to remember Erica, who died this weekend at the age of 27. She died after giving birth to her second child, a son she named Eric after her dad, Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold in 2014. She went into a coma after an asthma-induced heart attack.

Shaun King is our guest, with The Intercept, as well as Kirsten West Savali, speaking to us from Houston, who writes for The Root. She’s an associate editor and journalist there.

As you listen to Erica, Shaun, talk about what has been and has not been accomplished in her father’s case, so much of it pushed for by Erica. She was both critical and supportive of Bill de Blasio, but, right to the end, fighting for the disciplinary records of Officer Pantaleo to be released. And then the issue of the federal civil rights indictments that have not come down.

SHAUN KING: Yeah, a lot of people failed Erica and failed the Garner family. And I’m a rather new New Yorker. When I moved to New York, there was this view that I had of the city that it was a progressive haven. And I think that irritated Erica that people saw this city as incredibly progressive, and yet she couldn’t get the most basic form of justice for her family.

And so, they never fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo, which, you know, I even confronted the chief of police myself about this. And they talk about rules and regulations that make it difficult. But here we are, over three years later, and he clearly violated NYPD policy. They didn’t fire him. The city, including the mayor, fought the family, over and over and over again, for the release of his disciplinary records, which was just ridiculous. I think that Mayor de Blasio will look back on this with deep regret. It was a missed opportunity to do right by a family. And now, I really don’t even think it’s something he can make right. Erica was the most fierce defender of her father. And I don’t think there’s really a way that the mayor could fix this at this point.

And so, even the Obama administration and the Justice Department really seemed to make a commitment to Erica—even Donald Trump made a commitment to the Garner family—that they would do something about this. And people continued to just kick the can or, you know, just continued to put it off. And here we are now with Erica’s loss. And it just shows justice delayed is justice denied, in so many ways. And I’m pissed, and Erica was furious. And I think I’m angrier now than I’ve ever been to see a family denied justice like this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Shaun, back in March, ThinkProgress published Pantaleo’s leaked disciplinary records.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it showed that he had 14 complaints tied—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —filed against him with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, four of which were substantiated. And the allegations included an abusive vehicle stop in 2011 and an abusive stop-and-frisk in 2012. Do you think that would have made any difference if that had come out earlier?

SHAUN KING: Oh, yeah, it would have made a huge difference. But again, that was leaked by the Citizen Complaint Review Board. And had it come out officially, it even could have been used in the civil suit or could have been used in a criminal case. But the city, to this very day, continues to fight for the defense, the secrecy of those documents, and which continued to infuriate Erica and the family. And so, at every turn, it’s been very difficult for Erica to see where Mayor de Blasio stood. And so, even though the family received a civil settlement, which they actually just received a few months ago—people think that was something they received years ago. They just now received that. Other than that civil settlement, really it’s hard to point to anything that the city has done to make this right, including how they address the legality of the chokehold. There have been dozens and dozens of other cases of officers using the chokehold, even though it violates NYPD policy.

And so, there’s—this city continues to refuse to terminate bad police. And I like to say it like this. Cops often say, “Hey, there are only a few bad apples.” But New York City and the NYPD really don’t even hold the bad apples accountable. They continue to protect even them. And Daniel Pantaleo was one of those. If he had 14 complaints, those are 14 people who had the nerve and the gall and the courage to actually file a complaint. You can legitimately assume he had dozens of other issues that just never made it there. And having four of them upheld is actually surprising. The CCRB almost never upholds any of the complaints. And when I saw that he had four, that’s a significant number.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s still on the payroll.


AMY GOODMAN: Still getting pay raises.

SHAUN KING: Which is a huge injustice to the family, who felt like, at any given moment, they may bump into him in the city. This is the man who murdered their father, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Kirsten West Savali and ask about Erica Garner’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders as president. I want to play a clip from her ad, just a short clip.

ERICA GARNER: I’m behind anyone who’s going to listen and speak up for us. And I think we need to believe in a leader like Bernie Sanders.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It is not acceptable to me that we have seen young black men walk down streets in this country, be beaten and be killed unjustly.

PROTESTERS: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

ERICA GARNER: There’s no other person that’s speaking about this. People are dying. This is real. This is not TV. We need a president that’s going to talk about it.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person, like Sandra Bland, can get into a car, and then, three days later, she’s going to end up dead in jail.

ERICA GARNER: I believe Bernie Sanders is a protester.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: When a police officer breaks the law, that officer must be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask Kirsten West Savali about Erica’s decision to endorse Bernie Sanders for president.

KIRSTEN WEST SAVALI: You know, I think it’s very important to make very clear that this was something that she did during a political moment where supporting Hillary Clinton was something that just seemed that needed to be done. You know, black women, in particular, black feminists, in particular, really kind of, in general, circled the wagons around her.

And she was able—she stood alone. And there was a lot of, you know, criticism of that. There was a lot of criticism, a lot of framing, supporting Bernie Sanders as, you know, a white candidate, framing it as not being politically mature or being from a privileged position. And I would invite anyone to say how Erica Garner was speaking from a position of privilege by endorsing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

And this is not to relitigate the election. I think that we need to be clear on that, as well, not to relitigate what happened with the election. But it was—she stood alone in a very real way. And she believed in Bernie Sanders. And then, when he was no longer in the race, she spoke out about political duopoly and how you really could not put all your faith in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. So I think that’s important.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kirsten West Savali, I want to thank you so much for being with us, joining us from Katy, Texas, associate editor at The Root, journalist and editor, and Shaun King of The Intercept. We will link to both of your pieces at Democracy Now! And go to, where we have our interviews with Erica Garner. Again, this weekend, Erica Garner passed away at the age of 27.

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