Christine Emba is a Post opinions writer and editor.
Erica Garner died two days before the new year. She was 27 years old.
Garner became an activist for civil rights after the 2014 death of her father, Eric Garner, a black Staten Islander who died at the hands of a white police officer. Stopped for selling loose cigarettes, Garner went into cardiac arrest after being put into an illegal chokehold. The event was captured on videotape.
Erica Garner’s protest was unceasing and, in the years afterward, her father’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a national rallying cry. But her work came at a cost. “I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything,” she said weeks before her own death. “. . . This thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can’t win.”
The system can kill, and racism can as well. It killed Erica Garner’s father and contributed to her own too-early demise: On Christmas Eve, she suffered a massive heart attack that led to extreme brain damage, likely related to the traumatic effects of pain and loss that disproportionately affect black women.
Yet within hours of her death, accusations of bias flew in the opposite direction. Why? Because of a tweet from her account: “Out of respect to Erica please do not request comment if the journalist is not Black.”
It was an unexpectedly provocative request.
Alt-right commentators cried reverse racism. And even nonpartisan journalists found reasons to question its logic. Was Reggie Harris, Garner’s political adviser, and director of her Twitter account after she fell into a coma, suggesting that white journalists shouldn’t cover “black” stories? Should newsrooms acquiesce to such requests?
At the bottom of it all was a question of power and control: Who has it? And how should it be used?
Journalists rightly bristle when public figures attempt to wrest control of coverage to shape their own narratives. We’re skeptical of President Trump’s cozy relationship with Fox News. We would denounce a press secretary’s request for only right-leaning reporters.
But, in large part, that wariness is rooted in a balance of power tilted in the government’s direction. Good journalism is meant to be a check on dominant systems, their power and their influence.
Garner’s power was never of this type — quite the contrary. She called attention to the asymmetries that would allow a police officer to kill a man in a crowd of witnesses and yet remain unindicted by a jury and employed by his department. (In fact, police officer Daniel Pantaleo’s pay has increased each year since Eric Garner’s death).
Erica Garner highlighted the systems of injustice that leave the life expectancy of blacks more than three years below that of whites, and allow black mothers to die in childbirth at three times the rate of white mothers. (Garner leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son.)
And the equality she fought for requires a shift in representation. Black journalists still make up less than 6 percent of newsroom staff. Is it such a stretch to see a connection to how consistently the media distorts the lives of black families, including Garner’s own? While Garner collaborated with white reporters on major projects, the request for black journalists was of a piece with her activism. They could be trusted to tell her story.
That assumption, of course, comes with troublesome implications. Limiting journalists to reporting only on those who look like them shrinks the possibilities of coverage and flies in the face of years of practice. In newsrooms, such a policy would leave stories untold and pigeonhole writers from marginalized groups.
But this is all, necessarily, a subjective enterprise. Someone has to decide which stories are worth telling and which reporter is best to tell them. That decision-maker is the one with the power. Should establishment standing, as much a marker of privilege as of effort, define the ideal reporter for a subject like this one? The fact that the conversation is already centered on the fallacy of “reverse racism” rather than Garner herself hints at who controls the narrative.
In the face of death, even the most hard-boiled reporter should extend some deference to the grieving. And for a brief moment, Garner’s team sought to seize a narrow slice of power gained through tragedy to advance minority representation, to promote the voices of those who, like Garner, might not get the chance to speak. The outraged response shows how unwelcome such a shift in control was.
“We don’t hold power all the time,” Harris told me. “But we tried to exercise it when we could. If she had asked that two weeks ago, no one would have cared. But in that moment, there was a new realization of where the power lay.”
What does it say that so many were made uncomfortable seeing Erica Garner’s power put to use?
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