Last summer Erica Garner watched the protests in Ferguson, Missouri from her Staten Island home. She followed along with the coverage on cable networks and social media, all while still mourning her own loss.
Mike Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, but just three weeks earlier, her father Eric Garner died after a police officer put him in a chokehold on Staten Island. Eric Garner’s death attracted little media attention as all eyes were on Ferguson, until months later when the video of his final cry, “I can’t breathe,” was shared around the world.
At just 24 years-old, Erica Garner now finds herself at the forefront of protests against police brutality. “People have been calling me an activist overnight,” she says.
Since her father’s death, Erica founded the Garner Way Foundation. She has appeared on local and national television, while filtering requests for appearances from universities, high schools, churches and conferences. The attention has been both invigorating and frightening. Speaking out is her full time job, and one that she is learning on the fly.
How is an activist made, anyway? For this one, it was seeing her father die via cellphone video that went viral. Erica has “seen it and watched it a thousand-million times.”
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When a grand jury decided not to indict the officers involved in the Garner incident in December, protesters poured into the streets of New York City. The news cameras came, and so did the police. But the Garner family and their early supporters hit the streets - the exact street he took his last breath - just one month after Eric Garner died. “To me, it was just saying ‘you know what? I’m just going to march.’”
At this point the protests have subsided, the cameras are gone, but Erica Garner will not stop her marching. “That’s the most annoying question I get. People ask, ‘when will you stop marching? What do you want from marching?’ He was my father. I will always march.”
The marches start after business hours, so the working class folks of her community can join. Every Tuesday and Thursday at six in the evening - sometimes folks come, sometimes they don’t. “I usually wait for people for an hour,” said Erica. “They come every 15 minutes from the ferry boat.”
They march from the ferry to the Supreme Court, and from the Supreme Court to the 126th precinct. “Then I walk the back street down Baystreet, to the actual spot where my father was murdered,” said Erica.
Erica Garner has accepted that some days she will have thousands marching by her side and other days it’s just her own two feet. “Some days it gets discouraging. People in Staten Island aren’t really speaking up. I tell them, ‘Speak up! This happened in your neighborhood. My dad was the guy that you see every day.’”
After news broke that an NYPD computer was used to change the details of the Eric Garner page on Wikipedia, Garner was furious. “To see that [Police Commissioner Bill] Bratton is not even trying to punish those guys, is like proof that there is corruption there,” Garner said.
But this is what drives her. Erica Garner is on the front lines of a movement because she wants to be in control of the narrative about her father’s death. She speaks about it on podiums and shouts about it in the streets to clear up misconceptions.
“Sometimes [people think] he had a heart attack. Sometimes it was his respiratory problem. It’s a shame because I know what happened on that video,” says Erica. “He was jumped. He was murdered for no reason at all. The cops had been bothering him for a long time.”
Erica says the police now bother her using intimidation tactics. “They’ve stopped protesters from coming across the water [to march]. They’ve followed me in unmarked cars, and even barricaded the Supreme Court steps so people will think [the march] isn’t happening.”
But they do happen. Every Tuesday and Thursday at six in the evening.