Hundreds of people gathered at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem on Monday evening, waiting through flurries and spitting rain to pay last respects to Erica Garner, the 27-year-old daughter of the late Eric Garner.
A mother of two, Garner became a leading activist for civil rights and against police brutality after New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo killed her father with a chokehold explicitly prohibited by the department during a Staten Island arrest for selling loose cigarettes in July 2014. Her father’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Garner held biweekly actions at the Victory Boulevard intersection where her father died that year, fellow activists recalled Monday. She also marched in protest when a grand jury on Staten Island declined to indict Pantaleo, and held no punches criticizing leading democrats from Mayor Bill de Blasio to President Barack Obama when it came to the handling of her father’s killer’s case. Garner died on December 30 in Brooklyn of an asthma-induced heart attack, four months after giving birth to her son, whom she named after her father.
“I think she’s a prototype of what this society is doing to people: It’s turning everyday people into leaders when they never sought to be one,” said Brock Satter, 46, an activist from Boston who made the trip Monday in Garner’s honor. “The way she responded to the crisis shows a way for other people going through tragedies to be, which is to be uncompromising in the fight for justice no matter what.”
Mourners also acknowledged the toll that relentless activism can take on the body. Erica said as much in a December interview on the podcast Like It or Not with Benjamin Dixon. In it, she recalled the death of Venida Browder, whose son, Kalief, committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island for a petty crime he didn’t commit.
Browder “died of a broken heart,” Garner told Dixon. “She had heart problems because she kept on fighting for her son. Like I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything…’cause this thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can’t win.”
Garner “is clearly the second victim of the same crime,” Reverend Al Sharpton told reporters on Monday, stressing that Pantaleo has not been federally charged and is still a member of the NYPD. The lack of justice over her father’s death “caused absolutely and unequivocally the pain that broke her heart and caused her condition.”
Sharpton’s National Action Network organized Monday’s service, which was closed to the press. Politicians including Comptroller Scott Stringer and newly minted City Council Speaker Corey Johnson were in attendance, as well as the musician and activist Common. But tensions ran high shortly after 5 p.m. when Garner’s paternal grandmother, Gwen Carr, attempted to enter and was turned away. A scuffle broke out in the packed church lobby, with people pushing and shoving, and within minutes the NYPD barred entry to dozens of mourners still queued outside, including elderly women and additional members of Garner’s family.
The encounter highlighted family tensions, as well as friction between the National Action Network and Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, whose leader, Hawk Newsome, accused Sharpton’s organization of co-opting and branding the funeral, a sentiment reiterated on Twitter by Garner’s political director.
“I’m so tight right now because I can’t say goodbye to my cousin,” said 48-year-old Benjamin Lawton, Eric Garner’s first cousin, who marched frequently with the family and arrived Monday after the church doors had been barred. Sharpton is “making this a media event,” he added.
National Action Network did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though Sharpton tweeted Monday night that his group had “nothing 2 do” with the guest list, which was “composed by the fam.”
Still, some attendees criticized Sharpton for not stepping in to defuse the tension and escort Carr in. “At the end of the day, anybody who wants to mourn someone should be allowed to mourn them,” said Q.B., a member of the activist group NYC Shut It Down and friend of Garner’s who declined to provide her full name.
“It’s just sad to know that NYPD was allowed to enter her funeral,” Q.B. added. “That was the last thing she would have ever wanted. Because she spent her last breath against them.”
Neither Carr nor a spokesperson for the family commented Monday. A spokesperson for First Corinthian denied any responsibility for the incident, telling reporters that “the actions that were displayed tonight definitely aren’t what we believe in.”
Pallbearers rolled Garner’s flower-strewn casket out of the church shortly before 7 p.m., as mourners on the sidewalk sang the hymn “This Little Light of Mine.” Then, as the hearse pulled away, several dozen members of NYC Shut It Down clustered in front of the church entrance for a mic check in her honor.
“Erica said, ‘It’s hard but you have to keep going. No matter how long it takes, we deserve justice,’ ” they shouted in unison. “This is not an isolated incident. The case of Eric Garner is one of dozens in the city of New York where NYPD has faced no accountability. If you believe that black lives matter, if you believe in black liberation, if you believe in black power, raise your fist in solidarity.”
After a moment of silence the group marched east into traffic on 116th Street. Within minutes, an NYPD van pulled up behind them. Officers grabbed a man near the back of the crowd and pushed him to the pavement, arresting him. Witness video captured the arrest. In it, the man can be heard echoing Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”
— James St. Patrick Of Anonymous (@BeTheIdea) January 6, 2018