Erica Garner at 2016 Rally. Photo credit: The All-Nite Images / Otto Yamamoto

The high cost of freedom: activist Erica Garner dead at 27

4 mins read

On her death certificate, Erica Garner’s cause of death reads that her passing was due to a heart attack.

However, we all know that racism killed her. She placed her body, her very heart on the altar of sacrifice like so many.

Following the birth of her second child, Garner developed an enlarged heart. Shortly after recovering from a complicated labor, Garner continued her work.

On December 23, Garner, a 27-year-old mother and social activist suffered an asthma attack that triggered a massive heart attack. Due to the lack of oxygen, she went into a coma and sustained irreversible brain damage. On December 31, she passed.

Like many activist, Garner entered into social activism after a tragedy. In 2014, officers in the New York Police Department killed her father, Eric Garner, via chokehold for vending loose cigarettes. Eerily, he died due to asphyxiation, or the lack of oxygen.

Afterwards, Erica became relentless in holding everyone accountable. From there, Garner never stopped, literally, until her last breath.

Warrior Until Her Last Breath

Following her first protest in 2014, Garner has participated in hundreds of events.

From protests to political campaigns, she pressured the consciousness of Americans. She reminded us of the grave injustices in the country.

Even when most media outlets turned their attention somewhere else, Garner remained consistent.

For almost two years, every Tuesday and Thursday, she protested for her father, and others who died at the hands of injustice. Then in a blog post on July 7, 2016 she wrote:

I decided to do this after going quiet for a few months for self care. For almost two years straight I have been marching, protesting, advocating, fighting, speaking out and struggling against police brutality.

Two words are salient in her post: self care.

Liberation work takes a toll, as does racism; and many who work in social justice do not understand the invisible repercussions of fighting against an insidious system of deep-seated, centuries-old racism and terror.

Battle fatigue

During Civil Rights, Fannie Lou Hamer, a Civil Rights leader, mentioned in an interview that entertainer-turned-activist, Harry Belafonte financed a trip for a group of Civil Rights leaders to travel to meet the president of Guinea, Sékou Touré, in West Africa.

Belafonte’s main focus was to get some of the hardest working activists to rest. He had to beg Hamer to attend, so entrenched in her work. A sharecropper-turned-Civil-Rights-activist from Mississippi, Hamer spent many days working for voting rights and social justice for blacks.

Between organizing and strategizing with daily death threats and campaign work such as speaking and protesting, many of them worked long hours until exhaustion. The term used to describe the state of organizers was, battle fatigue.

In an interview, Belafonte said that the most impacted, he felt, was Hamer who appeared scattered and nervous upon an unannounced visit of President Touré. Belafonte said:

After the meeting, Fannie Lou started to cry and, ah, she said that she didn’t know quite what would happen to her from this experience because for so long Black people had been trying to get to the President of the United States of America where we were citizens and where we had rights and could never see him.

For most, they visited Africa for the first time, a huge experience for African Americans, as most never traveled back to their ancestral lands. At the same time, a delegation that worked non-stop in the United States was able to rest for three weeks.

Hamer referenced her visit to Africa often. It was a connection to her ancestral roots, as well as an opportunity to see the dignity of African people. She would die due to complications of a jail beating during her activist work. She worked until she could not breathe.

Unbeknownst to many, activist work takes a serious toll on the body. This is the case of Erica Garner

Racism and Stress

Past studies show that the chronic stress of racism results in psychological and physical stress.

In particular, for African Americans, racism is a daily experience that is both visible and invisible, so even when you are unaware, it impacts you in profound ways.

An example occurred in August 2017, at the W.E.B. DuBois annual plenary given by the National Association of Black Journalists. The plenary focused on bringing productive discussion to those affected by police violence into conversation with law enforcement, academics and media folk.

Two women whose family members were gunned down by police officers spoke on the panel. As Valerie Castille, the mother of Philando Castile; and Sandra Sterling, the aunt of Alton Sterling, relived their experiences, a collective heartbreak ensued.

A journalist next to me teared profusely. I offered one of my grandmother’s handkerchiefs that I carry around for incidents like this, but she refused. The journalist explained that she covers Minnesota and Castile’s story, in particular, was exceptionally hard for her.

And like she, I cried because I felt almost powerless in figuring out how I as a member of the press can move the issue to resolution rather than continually reporting carnage. My encounter speaks volumes of the overwhelming grief and trauma black journalists endure in the relentless murders of black people by law enforcement.

If someone who covers social justice issues from a peripheral position, goes through emotional trauma then activists like that of Erica Garner experience higher levels of duress.

Emotional Emancipation

In 2009, the Community Healing Network (CHN), a nonprofit out of New Haven, Connecticut, and The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) have been working together since 2009 to build a worldwide movement for what they call, emotional emancipation (EE).

The campaign fosters the healing, wellness and empowerment of Black people. By creating spaces consisting of self-help groups, the circles focus on overcoming emotional and psychological stress. From there, circles sprang up across the world.

Involved are activists who felt overwhelmed in their work.

Moving forward, activists must work towards more self-care, as well, people who can help, like Belafonte did in the 60s, must step up.

Below is a video of someone who used emotional emancipation circles to deal with the stress of activism.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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