Garner fighting. Getty Image
The death of 27-year-old Black Lives Matter activist Erica Garner is devastating on so many levels. A warrior who "walked with a fierce dignity in this world," she left behind a four-month-old son, an already-shattered family, and her tireless fight for justice for her father Eric, killed in an illegal police chokehold in 2014, and other black victims of police abuse. Having seen the murder of her father by agents of a racist system, noted Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Garner “bravely transformed her unspeakable personal pain (into) political power." Still, her fight came at a high cost.
After learning during her pregnancy she had heart problems along with asthma, she suffered one heart attack soon after the birth of her son - named Eric for her father - and another last week. "The media will say that Erica died of a heart attack,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. "But that's only partially true, because her heart was already broken when she couldn't get justice for her father...The asthma and (the rest) just attacked the pieces that were left." "When you report this, remember she was human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt," wrote a grieving relative on Erica's Twitter account. "Her heart was bigger than the world...She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice."
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In this, tragically, she was far from alone. With her death, Garner joined a horrific, little-reported, Third-World-level epidemic of maternal mortality among black women in America. The statistics appall: Black women are 243% more likely to die unnecessarily - unheard, misdiagnosed, disrespected, "weathered" by a lifetime of racist bias and victim-blaming - from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women. Overall, black mothers die at three or four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health. In New York City, where Erica Garner lived, black mothers are 12 times more likely than white mothers to die from their pregnancies, regardless of social status; one study found black college-educated women suffered more severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who didn't graduate high school.
In a stunning series on those discrepancies - the headline, "Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth," says it all - Pro Publica documented the life and death of Shalon Irving, a black 36-year-old epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control with multiple advanced degrees, good insurance and a solid support system who worked to eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes by exploring racism, trauma and structural inequality - and who died soon after childbirth from medical mistakes. Irving's mother is now raising her son. She is doing so within the same deeply flawed system where Erica Garner's mother will likely raise her son - and where, Erica told an interviewer weeks before her death, she was "struggling." "This thing," she said of her new motherhood, her battle against injustice, her health issues and all the rest, "It beats you down." Her loss is heartbreaking. May she rest in power.
Irving with her father and baby, hours before her death. Family photo.