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Erica Garner, pulled to activism after her father’s death, dies at 27

Her father's death by NYPD chokehold made her an activist.

Erica Garner.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Activist Erica Garner, a vocal activist and organizer within the Black Lives Matter movement, has died. She was 27.

After suffering a heart attack last weekend, Garner had been hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma. She went into cardiac arrest after an asthma episode, her mother, Esaw Snipes, told the New York Times. It was Garner’s second heart attack. Her official Twitter account, which has posted updates on her condition throughout the week, confirmed her death on Saturday morning.

Garner was the daughter of NYPD chokehold victim Eric Garner, whose death fueled the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Garner emerged as a prominent activist after her father, Eric Garner, was killed during an encounter with the New York Police Department in July 2014. He was confronted by police officers on a Staten Island street corner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner in an unlawful chokehold; after being lowered to the ground, Garner was restrained by several officers.

In a video taken by Ramsey Orta, a bystander, Garner could be heard repeatedly telling officers, “I can’t breathe.” NYPD officers later called an ambulance for Garner after noticing his breathing difficulty, but he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. An autopsy confirmed that while Garner had dealt with obesity and asthma, the chokehold had also played a role in his fatal heart attack.

Pantaleo was charged with causing Garner’s death, but a grand jury declined to indict him. He remains employed by the NYPD. New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement with Garner’s estate in 2015. A Justice Department civil rights investigation into the case is ongoing.

After her father’s death, Erica Garner used her voice to pursue social justice

Garner’s oldest daughter, Erica, became a prominent activist and outspoken critic of police misconduct after her father’s death. She staged a “die-in” on the same corner where he was placed in a chokehold a few months after his death and continued to share his story in the media, at protests, and in other public forums. She also set up the Garner Way Foundation in her father’s honor, which she said she would use to “fight to engage communities all over the world in this struggle through, political awareness, music, arts, and community activism.”

“Even with my own heartbreak, when I demand justice, it’s never just for Eric Garner," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year endorsing then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “It’s for my daughter; it’s for the next generation of African Americans.”

Sanders in a series of tweets on Saturday sent his condolences to Garner’s family, characterizing her as an “exceptional young woman” and “fighter for justice” who will not be forgotten.

Garner urged unity in the social justice movement and sought to mend fissures and conflicts within it. In a 2015 op-ed in the Guardian, she warned that “conflicts can destroy movements” and worried about those seeking fame and media attention instead of real change. “The police are killing our people — that’s reason enough not to fight amongst ourselves,” she wrote. “No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together.”

Garner was also known for her critiques of politicians, including Barack Obama, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. She was particularly critical of de Blasio, noting that he defended the NYPD’s decision not to release Pantaleo’s disciplinary records after her father’s death.

De Blasio called Garner’s death a “horrible tragedy” in a tweet.

Garner’s official Twitter account, which according to CNN is now being run by her family, tweeted about de Blasio after her death.

Garner criticized former President Obama’s reactions to her father’s death and the slow pace of the DOJ investigation. In June, Eric Garner’s family met with DOJ officials for updates about their investigation. After the meeting, they expressed frustration at the pace of the investigation, which they were told was still active. In a series of tweets after the meeting, Erica Garner again stressed that she wanted to see progress on the investigation.

In December 2015, Garner and Reggie Harris, political director at the Garner Way Foundation, penned an op-ed in HuffPost to mark the first anniversary of a grand jury failing to indict Pantaleo. They wrote:

I have opened my eyes. I have studied this snapshot in time and learned that my father will never get justice. Our founding documents declared Black people property, three-fifths of the white men who used violence to enforce their will. No amendment has truly written us into humanity, and it’s clear from the state of our prisons and jails that we are not yet free.

“She was a warrior, she was a fighter, and we didn’t pull the plug on her,” Snipes, Garner’s mother, told the New York Daily News. “She left on her own terms.”

Garner is survived by her two children, her mother, and her four siblings.