Today, May 29, would have marked the 30th birthday of Erica Garner, who passed away over two years ago. Some speculated that her death was because of inadequate healthcare, while others attributed her death to the stress and burden of being a black woman trying to survive in America. The daughter of Eric Garner, the man, father and grandfather who was killed by New York City police officers, Erica Garner became the face of a movement of black people galvanized by the viral video of her father pleading and gasping for his life, with the words “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
I was shocked and reminded of Eric and Erica Garner’s story earlier this week when the viral video of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by police while gasping the same plea for life, “I CAN’T BREATHE.” George Floyd and Eric and Erica Garner’s stories remind us that fighting for air is nothing new for black people. In fact, it’s no coincidence that our country is the worldwide epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s suffocating black communities more than any other group. The underlying preconditions of systemic racism are forcing us to gasp for air, in many different ways.
In the early reports of Eric Garner’s death, we quickly heard, as we have seen during the pandemic, the argument that he died not due to the illegal chokehold but from pre-existing conditions. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, has similarly blamed black people for dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than others, ignoring the chokeholds of presidential inaction, environmental racism, and inequities in the healthcare system that are killing us. If anything, black people may be blamed for living in a country that has continued to fail to address the systemic injustice that further places us at risk of death every day.
For many of us, we are not given the opportunity to breathe in the first place. The Bronx, prior to the onslaught of COVID 19—has not only been home to the worst asthma rates in the city but also the country. The black community in New Orleans’ cancer alley was already 50 times more likely to get cancer than anywhere else in the country. While we are blamed for dying at high rates, black people are saving the country during the pandemic, placing ourselves at risk and exposed to death simply because many of us are on the frontlines as essential workers ensuring others are fed and cared for during this pandemic. The economy of black existence dictates that we are only allowed to live, breathe and die as determined by the system, and valued only to the degree our bodies are tied to the labor produced.
Finally, there is just the simple act of existing. Erica Garner was constricted by her father’s passing of being a new mother and an activist. Her death also reveals what we have quickly learned during this pandemic: Black people still can’t breathe in this country; the system has got its knee on our neck and is killing us.
Our only solace is our creativity and ability to always find hope in moments of great loss and despair. D-Nice’s DJ sets have become synonymous with the saying “Let It Breathe,” allowing time for the song to crescendo. Yet too often, in this country, black people’s lives are cut short and not given the space and air to fully blossom and live. We are never allowed to just exist, to just let us breathe. Erica Garner and Eric Garner deaths were a precursor of what was to come. Their deaths were early signs of what many of us have been screaming and shouting for years, America’s racist practices and policies are choking us to death. Now it’s time to come together and demand they get their knee off our necks.
Rashid Shabazz is the chief marketing and storytelling officer at Color Of Change. He oversees the group’s storytelling, branding and communications work, and leads Color Of Change Hollywood, dedicated to creating more accurate and authentic portrayals of black people in movies and on TV. Color Of Change’s COVID-19 project #TheBlackResponse is leading a narrative response to the pandemic with the goal of creating a more welcoming world for black people.