Erica Garner’s short life was marked by her unbridled, studied passion for justice. And that passion, that pain, spilled over into her funeral service Monday evening.
Her father was Eric Garner, whose last moments were captured on video as he sputtered, “I can’t breathe” 11 times on July 27, 2014. For Eric Garner, there was no reprieve from literal oppression. It killed him on that day. And his daughter, who was radicalized by his death, never stopped in her quest to garner justice for him.
Hundreds of mourners packed into First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem for the funeral, which at times seemed more like a production than a homegoing ceremony for the 27-year-old mother of two. Erica Garner was, above all else, a young black woman who, by some stroke of tragic luck, was thrust into activism because of the random, pervasive nature of police brutality in America.
Erica Garner died on Dec. 30 of a heart attack, months after giving birth to her son, Eric, named for her late father. Her mother spoke plaintively of her daughter during the service.
“She was born at seven-and-a-half months, 4 pounds, 11 ounces, but she proved to be a giant,” said Esaw Snipes-Garner, who recalled her daughter’s brazen determination.
Snipes-Garner said that she would beg Erica not to go out to protest, as she did twice a week for a year, trudging out to the Staten Island Ferry station, thick with commuters, rain or shine, to bring light to the nonindictment of the police officer who held her father in that fatal choke hold; a man still employed with the New York City Police Department.
“I can’t take care of these kids,” Snipes-Garner said she told her, which, she noted, wryly, is exactly what she is now doing. “She lived on her own terms. And she died on her own terms.”
Her mom spoke of Erica’s fiery spirit; her obstinate, aggressive belief in herself and her choices; and her unyielding love for her father. She also spoke proudly of the day Erica shut down New York’s Verrazano Bridge, an eight-lane edifice that connects the New York City boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn.
“She did it by herself,” her mother said. “Eight lanes of traffic. She said, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who did Erica’s eulogy, also told that story.
He recounted: “Erica calls, and says, ‘I done blocked two streets, but they won’t arrest me.’” Sharpton said he responded that maybe the NYPD didn’t want to touch the daughter of Eric Garner. So she responded, “I stopped traffic and they won’t arrest me. I’m going to the bridge.” And she did.
“This was a real warrior,” Sharpton boomed. “She didn’t care about awards or press, she cared about justice!”
Sharpton said that Erica didn’t die of a heart attack but of a heart that was attacked, after seeing her father so brutally snuffed out with no recompense. The unfairness of it all; the unjustness of it all; the pain of her worst pain splayed out for all to see.
There were speeches. Sen. Bernie Sanders, for whom Erica campaigned in 2016, sent a letter. Sharpton acknowledged the people of note in attendance. There were lots of men in dark suits, mostly politicians and preachers (in Harlem, they’re often one and the same, going back to Adam Clayton Powell Jr.); there were beautiful songs sung.
There was also a verbal and apparently physical altercation during the service, which turned out to be family members fighting with Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, who said that she and her husband were turned away and attacked by other family members.
As the commotion took place, Sharpton stepped up as it was happening and said, “Everyone has family divisions. We have to respect Erica,” and the program moved on. Sharpton later lamented, “All of us have feuds, all of us have differences. I have some in my family I don’t speak to now. And I’m saved.” And again, he said, “This is about Erica.”
Activists, many of whom were outside because they could not get into the funeral, decried politics, where men who did not know Erica well and politicians were given pride of place at the service, when they could not get in.
One activist, who was heckling writer and activist Shaun King outside the services, shouted, “Erica wasn’t even from Harlem, so why was her funeral here?”
Rapper Common came, saying that he had to pay his respects to the Garner family and the people. He said he’d met Erica at an action once and was touched by her spirit.
“We’re going to fight, and keep fighting, not only for the injustices, but for the positivity and the grace and the gifts that we’ve been given from God,” said Common. “We’re gonna keep fighting for those things, that always will be there for us, and we’ll keep fighting for our young people.”
Mike Brown Sr., the father of Mike Brown, the 18-year-old killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer mere weeks after Eric Garner was killed, also came to pay his respects.
“I had to show my support for the family,” he told The Root. “The family has been there with our family from day one. It was my duty to come out and show the family the love that they’ve shown us.”
About Erica, Brown said simply: “She said what she said, she meant what she meant.”