Erica Garner resembled her father very much in life, and now shares his misfortune in early death, passing from heart failure this weekend. She was 27. The horrible unexpected loss of someone so young is particularly painful and tragic because she only just had a child, a baby boy she named Eric, after her father.
That little boy will grow up, I hope, to learn that his mother was a heroic woman who cared little about things like money and celebrity, and instead asked always for the more important things the world unfortunately has trouble giving, like justice, fairness, and love.
She had a lot on her mind recently. Throughout the tumult of the last three years Erica Garner was constantly surrounded by drama.
There were disputes about money, battles over the care of relatives, problems with a man in her life. Still in her twenties, she had gone into congestive heart failure after the birth of little Eric, a terrible and confounding scare for someone so young. It didn’t make sense: how much bad fortune could one family have?
Throughout it all, she remained focused on what she saw as the last realistic shot at justice for her father, the possibility of a federal civil rights prosecution. Through December there continued to be rumors about a federal grand jury that was still taking witness statements in the case. Erica had been led to expect news on that front, one way or the other, by the New Year.
There may yet still be a federal prosecution. But the passage of this New Year without an indictment would have been still another blow. She would have been furious.
I feel sure that the first thing she would want mourners to do this week would be to somehow place pressure on the federal government to take action in her father’s case, or to at least not let the possibility of such a prosecution be forgotten.
Erica was a rare person whose honesty far outweighed her self-interest.
Two summers ago, I sat in a park in Brooklyn with her to talk about writing the life story of her father, who had been killed by a police chokehold in an incident the whole world saw on video. She knew about the project and asked what I’d learned so far.
I told her that from the stories on the street, I’d come to like her father very much, and that while I hadn’t written anything yet, readers too would likely find him funny and full of life.
But, I said, there were many negative stories out there, too, things that made her father look not so heroic. I asked her how she would feel about those ending up in print.
“I want you to show him as he was,” she said. “I don’t want you to lie about anything.”
I heard this, but wanted to make absolutely sure there were no misunderstandings. I told her I believed that her father’s story would be more powerful if readers could see his flaws as well as his virtues, that the more real he seemed, the more people would care about his life, become invested in it. But this might mean painful disclosures.
She waved me off. “I don’t want people to see my father as something he wasn’t,” she said. “He was just a man. That’s what I want people to see, an ordinary man who tried.”
Erica was a natural storyteller and had a tremendous eye for little details. She talked about an unforgettable moment, not long before her father’s death, in which Eric came over to Brooklyn for his granddaughter Alyssa’s birthday party.
While the rest of the family celebrated and talked in the park, Erica soon noticed that father and granddaughter had been gone for some time. She got up and found Eric pushing Alyssa on a swing. He had been doing it for more than an hour.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, smiling.
She walked away and turned her head to see him still pushing the swing, not even noticing his daughter.
She remembered that moment as the last time she saw her father truly happy. This was important because in that summer of 2014, she could tell something was wrong in her father’s life.
When she asked him how he was doing that summer, he would lie to her and not tell her about problems he was having both at home and on the street, where he was more and more often tangling with police and with others (he had been robbed and beaten, among other things). And she could tell his health was failing, though he lied about that, too.
She noticed, for instance, that his diabetes had worsened considerably, that he had trouble staying on his feet. “The thing about it is that my father suffered,” she said.
That same summer, Erica – a young single mother struggling to make ends meet – came to Staten Island to have a frank talk with her father. There, in the front seat of his car, she confessed to her father that she was thinking of selling drugs. She needed the money, she said, and besides, hadn’t he done it?
Eric Garner, for all his other problems, never wavered on this issue. He told his daughter that she had options he hadn’t had, that what she was considering was the cynical and easy way out, and that she was better than that. He understood she was having a hard time with money, and would try to help, he said. But he didn’t want to hear any more talk of that sort.
She put it out of her mind.
When Eric Garner was killed by police shortly thereafter, Erica unquestioningly accepted much of the responsibility for keeping the case alive in the newspapers, and pressing for justice. She became famous, but her attitude toward celebrity was purely utilitarian – it only had meaning to her if it helped her get the case to where she wanted it to go.
She never managed to get it there, but that was hardly her fault. She tried everything. She held rallies, led marches, spoke constantly on television and radio, and met with officials from the city and the federal government, pushing not just for results in her father’s case, but for wider reforms, like the creation of an independent prosecutor to investigate police killings. There were some successes, but mostly what she heard were promises that went unfulfilled.
For this and other reasons, Erica was distrustful of both the Democratic and Republican parties and believed new leadership was needed to bring about genuine change. She was criticized for her outspoken remarks about the failures of the two-party system.
But this was who she was. She believed what she believed, and didn’t particularly care what others thought of her opinions.
About a year ago she told me she was considering going into politics. She asked me what I thought. I said it would probably be a hard business to take, for someone as honest as she is. But, I said, maybe that was what was needed. She said she would keep it in mind. It’s too bad we never got to see her try.
I don’t know what else to say about Erica except that she was an extraordinary person, I will miss her, and I’m so sorry for her two young children.
Yeats was right, in his apocalyptic poem about a world in which the worst of us are too often full of passionate intensity. That is certainly true of this awful time in which we live. But he was wrong about the best lacking all conviction. Erica Garner never lacked conviction. She merely died too soon, and we are all poorer for it.