As I write this article, I want to be clear about my intended audience. I am writing this piece in remembrance of Erica Garner, and in doing so, I am writing for those like Erica Garner and her father Eric Garner—people who have been affected by the violent and oppressive police presence in their lives. As Zeus Leonardo reminds us, “Oppression is best apprehended from the experiences or vantage point of the oppressed.” “Critical analysis,” he explains, “begins from the objective experiences of the oppressed in order to understand the dynamics of structural power relations. It also makes sense to say that it is not in the interest of racially dominated groups to mystify the process of their own dehumanization.”
Erica Garner, her father, and the countless Black men and women she dedicated her life to fighting for has experienced the trauma associated with interactions with the police. In this way, the Garners were embattled in a war on terror—one in which Black men, women, and children have been systemically and physically terrorized by the police.
Policing units and individuals have terrorized Black people in the United States as far back as the slave patrols and night watches, and continue to the present. Most of those perpetrators have not been publicly or privately punished and are emboldened by a larger society that frames officers as protectors, celebrated for their dedication to keeping law and order. From the vantage point of those who are policed, however, the police can be seen as terrorists–instituting a system of violence, fear, and terror in Black communities.
Rarely are the systemic usages of violence by the police in Black communities seen as forms of terrorism, but I would argue that this has everything to do with the lack of definitional power afforded to those that have been victims of state sponsored policing.
States have legislative power to say what terrorism is–or is not–and to establish the consequences of those charged with the crime. They have force at their disposal and they can lay claim to the legitimate use of violence in many ways that civilians cannot, on a scale that civilians cannot. In the case of an unarmed Eric Garner, the state declined to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who illegally choked Garner to death.
While “terrorism is a pejorative term,” as Bruce Hoffman asserts, it most aptly describes the violence that Black people encounter at the hands of the police. Eric Garner’s public execution functions as an act of terror with the intention of creating fear- not just with the victim but also among a wider audience that can identify with said victim. Erica Garner was one of these people.
One can only imagine how many times Erica Garner watched the video of her father unjustly being choked to death. By her own account, she remembered yelling at the screen when she first saw the footage. She recalled that her “head was spinning” and that she “was hot and throwing up.” Garner openly brought up the mental health issues suffered by family members, broken into pieces as they attempted to pick up the pieces of a broken life, shattered by their loved one’s fatal encounter with the police. She continued by saying that she “has to literally beg doctors to help me talk to someone professionally, and it’s $300 an hour. And who got money for that? I’m not rich, and I’m pretty sure that other families are not rich, and can’t afford that…this is trauma, this is trauma.”
In an interview with Progressive Army founder Benjamin Dixon, just three weeks before her passing, Garner again expressed the toll that dealing with being a victim of police terrorism has had on her everyday existence:
I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything. Because this thing, it beats you down…My father he died, he died on national TV. I had to see him die on national TV. A lot of people don’t get to see their parents die…I felt the same pain that my father felt on that day that he was screaming ‘I can’t breathe.’ When he was saying that he was tired of being harassed, tired of being arrested, his money being stole from him [by the police].
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event–such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault–victims of police terrorism are rarely “post” the traumatic events that have permanently impacted their mental and physical health. Black men and women like Erica Garner who reside in hyper-policed spaces are constantly reminded of police terrorism–the source of their trauma–not only by way of their personal experiences but also through the experiences of others. Their trauma, therefore, is perpetual and persistent, never passing and always present.
For those critical of my labeling police officers killing unarmed Black folks with impunity as a form of terrorism–as if it is mere hyperbole–consider the testimonials of those who have been terrorized by the police. When Erica Garner spoke of how she was terrified when NYPD officers surrounded her, forcing her out of a courtroom because she had her cellphone in her hand, a convergence of traumas were at play–the death of her father and the experience that she was going through during her own encounter with the police. In contextualizing the encounter Garner said: “Y’all [the police] killed my father, y’all see me, and now y’all wanna harass me…y’all got all these officers here for Eric Garner’s daughter. I felt like I was targeted as soon as I walked into the courtroom.” Erica continued by recounting how the police would follow her in unmarked cars as she protested the death of her father.
Her fears were not exaggerated. As a recent report reveals, police in the United States killed a reported 1,129 people in 2017 alone. Of this number, a quarter of those killed were Black—even though we comprise only 13 percent of the population. In addition, Black people are three times as likely to be killed by police as white people. These grave statistics underscore that the notion of police terrorism is no hyperbole but a reality for Black people in the United States. It’s a reality that Erica Garner endured on a day-to-day basis. It’s a reality that shaped the course of her life. Garner passed away after suffering from cardiac arrest. But make no mistake–the trauma that she endured as a result of the police unjustly killing her father contributed to her untimely death.