On the final weekend of 2017, activist and freedom fighter, Erica Garner, passed away. Her death at age 27 marked the end of a brutal year, and reflected the physical and emotional toll battling injustice can take.
“Like, I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything, ’cause this thing, it beats you down,” she explained in an interview.
Listen to Erica Garner @es_snipes as she spoke about the stresses of the struggle. This was just three weeks ago in an interview with me, @RebeccAzor and @Russian_Starr. Erica was fierce and committed. I’m going to remember all of that PLUS her smile at the end of this clip pic.twitter.com/0XatsZYW3W — Benjamin Dixon (@BenjaminPDixon) December 28, 2017
Erica Garner became an activist after her father, Eric Garner, was choked to death by the NYPD in 2014. Although the incident was caught on video, none of the officers were prosecuted. Erica Garner continued to demand justice for her father and for all black and poor people enduring state and economic violence. Yet, even as her own national reputation grew, doubts remained.
In an essay at The Guardian, Erica Garner wrote, “Reality set in: I live within a system that regularly kills black people. My will to fight started to fade.”
Erica Garner’s sense of despair echoed what most activists and people of color experienced, especially during the first year of the Trump presidency. Each day brings forth a new disaster, whether in the form of a Muslim Ban or a GOP tax bill that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.
Chaumtoli Huq, a veteran civil and human rights lawyer, has described this feeling of frustration as a product of “misalignment.” Misalignment occurs when our values of justice must contend with a dominant power structure that wants us to accept contrary principles of competition and consumption. “It is extremely taxing” Huq explained, “When we have to deal with the inequities of the system, and we’re working a lot, then to me burn out is a function of the misalignment.”
This dread and futility will bleed into the new year, unless we take the time to step back and reflect. Otherwise, we risk losing who we are.
THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
The sheer volume of mean-spirited decisions taken by Trump and his allies has been overwhelming.
Huq, a lawyer for over twenty years, who mostly works with the most marginalized, including Muslim immigrants and women of color, has noticed people around her as being more anxious and depressed.
“This is a hard year. It’s like scurrying, every week there is something. And we’re in a defensive posture,” she said.
Victor Narro, Project Director for the UCLA Labor Center and an an immigrant rights advocate, explained, “There is a lot of fatigue, stress and anxiety with all the attacks by the Trump Administration.”
Although Trump’s presidency in ways has been unprecedented, his policies are emblematic of an economic and political system designed to preserve the privileges of a few and to strip away the humanity among people of color and the poor.
“Trump personifies the system wide oppression, the systemic problems,” Anna Barcy, organizer for the faculty union at Rutgers University, said. “The underpinnings have always been racism, sexism, xenophobia,” she added.
With this perspective, Huq and Narro remind others that the battle for social justice is long, and in order to be emotionally and physical healthy for the struggles ahead, people must practice self-care. Huq and Narro encourage people to maintain connections with others and make sure they have someone they can depend on, especially when they’re feeling emotionally or physically drained.
“Activism isn’t one person darting off and saving the world. It’s about bringing people along to enjoy our struggles, our successes.”
In 2013, Huq founded Law at the Margins, a platform for those invested in social justice to share ideas and experiences with one another and to avoid feeling isolated. “Activism isn’t one person darting off and saving the world. It’s about bringing people along to enjoy our struggles, our successes,” Huq explained.
Dom Chatterjee is a community organizer and an editor for Rest for Resistance, which is described by Dom as “a publishing platform for queer writers and artists of color to unapologetically center ourselves and our diverse healing processes” and an extension of their community-led organization QTPoC Mental Health.
Chatterjee also recognizes that a major way to sustain oneself is to stay connected with others, especially with queer people of color.
“What QTPoC Mental Health is doing, at its essence, is sustaining hope for our widespread queer communities of color. I had such little hope when I started the org, and yet my own hope and faith have grown exponentially through this work, thanks to many QTPoC who I have met,” they said, “The secret is it works because the organization centers around mutual support. Hope is a community-created resource.”
What happened to Erica Garner has been written on extensively, with important pieces citing how black people, especially black women like Erica, must navigate a political and social landscape meant to dehumanize and hurt them. Erica and others like her knew that their battle for justice is over basic rights and resources.
Tyriese James Holloway, an organizer and studying to be a teacher at Rowan University, described the struggle for social justice as survival, especially for black and brown people.
“We’re not fighting for ideas, we’re fighting for food,” he stated.
Having grown up in a working-class family, Huq too explained that most people have no choice but to keep fighting, since their livelihoods and communities are constantly under attack.
“Just surviving is resistance because their entire existence is being directly threatened,” she said. Huq explained that she still does believe in hope, but it’s a type of hope that’s wedded to reality. “Not hope in the sort of unrealistic, immaterial way,” she said, “But hope in the sense I have deep profound love and faith in people and the peoples’ capacity to bring about change.”
“The pain and anguish that most people feel won’t disappear because of a new year.”
The pain and anguish that most people feel won’t disappear because of a new year. Instead, we must confront what we’re going through by sharing and building community. Erica Garner herself expressed her vulnerabilities and her doubts with the public, hoping to connect with more people.
In the same article in which she shared her pessimism, she also explained, “We build relationships with other activists and supporters, take the streets and risk arrest because we’re fighting for a world that truly values our lives.”
One must not romanticize the struggle of people like Erica Garner. What she and others endure is grueling and harsh. I wanted her to continue living and loving, to share more moments with her children and mother. Her life and death should be treated as an indictment of us, of how we’ve yet to create a place where black and brown people could live without fear of persecution and be free.
But her words remain and so, we must learn from what she said and did, and from those who continue to fight and strive for a better world.
“I will be back on Staten Island, with even more people, demanding real answers to my father’s unjust death” she wrote, “I just need you to join me.”
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student in political science who focuses on race and social justice. He has a Master’s in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, AsAm News, The New Engagement, and Gaali Gang.