Most of us remember the moment we witnessed the death of Eric Garner, captured on video by Ramsey Orta on July 17th, 2014. A father of four, Garner had had a difficult life by any measure and he lost his temper that day, verbally exploding at police, feeling they were harassing him as he stood in front of 202 Bay Street in Tompkinsville, Staten Island.
Rather than meeting Garner’s loud but nonviolent outburst with calm professionalism, the police on the scene, led from behind by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, took him down. Pantaleo used what proved to be a fatal choke hold in the process, a method banned by the NYPD.
In the aftermath, the officers involved suffered no real consequences for their actions and Pantaleo has received multiple salary increases in the years since. As in too many cases where mostly African American men were killed by police in the United States during his presidency, no federal charges were forthcoming from the Obama Administration’s Justice Department (not that anyone expects the current administration to do more in this regard).
Most of us didn’t get to know much about Eric Garner beyond his run ins with the legal system, dutifully reported after the fatal encounter by mainstream outlets that seemed desperate to create some ‘balance’ to offset the visual evidence of the police’s overreaction that day.
Garner was living with severe asthma and a heart condition and had difficulty finding employment due to run ins with the law and time in jail, mainly during his younger years. He was doing his best to avoid trouble and support his family, and was known as a peacemaker in the community of often even more troubled individuals where he plied his trade, selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Had he been white, he might have been applauded for his ‘entrepreneurial spirit’.
Tragedy struck the Garner family a second time on December 30th, 2017, when Garner’s daughter, Erica, 27, passed away at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, the result of a heart attack suffered on Christmas Eve. She had just given birth to her second child, a son she’d named after her father, in August.
Erica Garner: Accidental advocate
After her father’s death at the hands of the NYPD, Erica Garner became one of the most insistent voices in the then nascent Movement for Black Lives, grassroots efforts that have inspired many communities throughout the world, from Dalits in India to Oromo people in Ethiopia. Friends and family members have said that they had repeatedly cautioned the young woman that she was pushing herself too hard.
“I warned her everyday, you have to slow down, you have to relax and slow down,” her mother, Esaw Snipes, told CNN after she passed.
While she had her own crosses to bear in her personal life, including medical issues and an abusive boyfriend who assaulted her during her pregnancy, Garner was tireless in confronting the system she held responsible for her father’s death, pursuing justice for him and other victims of out of control policing all the way to the very top of the media and political food chain.
She famously walked out of an ABC News town hall in July of 2016 with then President Obama, telling Huffpost after, “I had to stage a walkout by myself. And I went out there I had to yell, scream, and eventually I was able to speak to the president. It’s a shame as black people that we have to yell and become belligerent to have our voices heard.”
Rather than holding her nose and ignoring the “super predator” and other comments made in the past by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who seemed to take the African American vote for granted, during the 2016 campaign, Garner appeared in a moving ad for Bernie Sanders called “It’s Not Over”, in which she spoke at length about her father, her hopes for her own daughter and going every Tuesday and Thursday to protests in the weeks and months after Eric Garner’s death.
It is that rarest of things, a political ad that seems genuine, and it’s all the evidence needed to show that Erica Garner’s leadership and powerful voice can never be replaced.
Ahed Tamimi: “We are all victims of some kind of occupation”
Meanwhile, an ocean away, bordering on the Mediterranean Sea in the West Bank town of Nabi Saleh, where protests against occupation and illegal settlements are an almost daily occurrence, an even younger victim of systemic injustice was putting her life and her freedom on the line.
It may be because, with her long mop of blond hair, 16 year old Ahed Tamimi doesn’t look like what most people picture when they think of a Palestinian (a silly notion when one considers the long history of contact between the various peoples who have lived in this part of the world) but the right wing government of Israel, led by the allegedly corrupt Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused of doing political favors in exchange for champagne for his wife and cigars for himself, quickly implied that even her choice of clothing shows that Tamimi staged a confrontation with soldiers in her family’s yard.
The truth is that Ahed has been at the forefront of the resistance in her village since she was a small child and, in the many photographs of her over the years, she has always dressed, like many of her neighbors and friends, in the American style. This is problematic for those in charge of the occupation because they have long tried to portray all Palestinians as Muslim fundamentalists, especially to western audiences.
Cut out of some versions of the video of the incident, which took place on Friday, December 15th of last year, is clear evidence that one of the soldiers swatted Ahed away as she castigated them for trespassing in her yard. She had even reportedly warned the soldiers, who were clad in full body armor, prior to the video’s start, that they should leave her family’s property or she would, “Punch them.”
Tamimi’s acts of defiance, ultimately futile slaps and kicks, did no harm to the heavily armed soldiers, but this didn’t stop the rightwing Israeli press from issuing blistering condemnations of her, claiming the live stream and resulting videos of the incident were an affront to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and, more widely, the country’s ‘national honor’, practically ensuring that the government would be forced to take action.
She was arrested the following Monday in a 4 AM raid on her home. Her cousin, Nour Tamimi, who is also in the video but did not physically accost the soldiers, was arrested the following day. Her mother, Nariman, who put herself between the soldiers and her daughter during the confrontation, was taken into custody shortly after her niece.
Many observers on the left see Ahed as a fierce defender of her people, others, including mainstream media in North America like Newsweek paint her as a hardened criminal, “with a history of attacking police and soldiers”. While the former is certainly true and she has become famous for resisting Israeli authorities, we might also see Tamimi as a deeply traumatized adolescent who has suffered more grief and hardship in her sixteen short years than most of us will ever know in a lifetime.
Nabi Saleh is a village of about 600 people, many of them members of the extended Tamimi family. In the immediate moment that the video was taken, Ahed was processing the news that her cousin, Muhammad, 15, had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet the day before and was on the precipice of death.
She had already buried two uncles killed as a result of the occupation. Her activist parents and many other family members, including her brother, had been arrested and jailed multiple times. Occupying forces routinely violated the peace of her home, including by lobbing tear gas cannisters through their windows.
She and other young people in her village have been responding to the occupation most of their lives with the only weapons at their disposal: protests and rocks. The latter, always featured prominently in western coverage of Palestinian protests, amount to a mostly symbolic act of defiance, considering the heavily armored protection and vastly superior arms of the IDF.
Ahed Tamimi faces multiple charges, including for earlier rock throwing, that could result in years in prison.
An interesting contrast to her case is provided by that of Yifat Alkobi, an Israeli settler living on disputed land who faced very similar charges in 2010. These included slapping an IDF soldier and throwing stones at Palestinians in Hebron, who don’t have the benefit of armored vehicles, helmets and body armor for protection. In the end, she served no time in jail, receiving just six months probation. Unlike Ahed Tamimi, after she was charged, Alkobi was immediately released and remained at liberty in her home throughout the trial.
While greater culpability rests with the Natanyahu government for continuing to encourage illegal settlements like those that have sprung up around Nabi Saleh in order to change the demographic facts on the ground there, it’s deeply troubling that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank doesn’t appear to be doing very much to peacefully organize civil society against these efforts. Perhaps they’re content to live luxuriously off of the crumbs that trickle down from the international community, allowed by Israel as much for keeping a lid on the anger boiling over in the territories under the PA’s nominal control, as for improving the lives of their people.
While one can understand the argument made by Tamimi’s father that these children can’t be shielded from the reality of the occupation, no civil authorities, especially those who are rarely on the front lines of protest, should be encouraging children to throw stones at heavily armed soldiers and police, at least some of whom seem to have no compunction about wounding or killing them in response.
Tamimi may, in the end, be convicted of assault and throwing stones but, as many commentators have explained, what the prosecution wants is for the charge of incitement to stick because it will define her as a ‘terrorist’ on the basis of things she has said, rather than her actions. Once the military court has established this as a legal fact, it will be spread widely in the hope that it will silence her voice in the court of public opinion, especially in North America and Europe.
The struggles of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories also connect with another ongoing movement in North America. The main crisis in Nabi Saleh is over the use of the town’s spring, the source of water for the village for many generations until settlers took control of it and cut off their access. Ahed Tamimi was a Water Protector long before the term was popularized by Standing Rock.
These two young women, in many ways from different worlds, one close to home who was taken from her community and young family too soon, the other, an ocean away, disappeared into the clutches of a biased military system of ‘justice’, must not be forgotten. Erica Garner and Ahed Tamimi, each in their own way, have set examples of real resistance that activists and allies on the wider left should resolve to emulate through 2018 and beyond.