The Death and Life of Eric Garner

Eric Garner helped shape a local celebration of life, which has grown into a broader symbol of the effort against senseless, violent killing.

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, during a candlelight vigil (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

On the western end of Coney Island, far from the hubbub of the rides and the clam shacks, the tenants of the Coney Island Houses were celebrating the dead. It was a sweltering day—a beach day, if there ever was one. But here by the beach on this Saturday in July, people had gathered on a sunbaked plaza outside a cluster of high rises. Volunteers were sweating over a row of grills, filling aluminum trays with burgers and franks. Kids raced by on scooters. A sound system the size of a small house made the pavement vibrate.

It might have been a typical block party if not for the names. Seventy-three of them were printed on a banner hanging from the chain-link fence around the basketball court. It was a register of nearly everyone from these projects who had died since 1998, when Kenneth Dean, also known as Fiend, was shot in the chest through the door of his grandmother’s apartment.

Seventy-three deaths, some of them from natural causes, many of them violent. Harun Eberhart, the founder and organizer of the event, stepped away from the grill and began reading names from the banner. Danny Fajardo, also known as Cash, “a young gentleman whose life was cut short.” Allen Lewis, or “Jungle”—“like a brother to me.” Jamie Stokes, who “died terribly, riddled by, like, 18 bullets.”

And then, a recent entry: Eric Garner.

Garner, who died last summer on a New York street after a police officer wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him to the ground, spent weekends and summers in these projects, where his grandparents lived. Eberhart was a cousin and a close friend. When they played basketball, it was Eberhart, compact and quick, who fed the ball to “Big E” in the post. In the summers, they worked the bumper cars at the El Dorado arcade.

Both of their mothers had city jobs. "We didn't want for nothing," Eberhart said. But he didn’t mean they had everything. When they were teenagers in the ’80s, at the height of the crack boom, there were boys from the projects who changed cars like other kids changed clothes. The obvious solution to the problem of not having what those boys had was to start selling what those boys sold. In a way, Garner was lucky to live as long as he did. Many of his friends were shot and killed before they turned 30. Eberhart himself was shot on two separate occasions, once in the knee and foot, the other time in the hip.

About a decade ago, Eberhart decided he wanted to leave that life behind. He had already spent five years in prison. He had two young kids by then, a boy and a girl. (He now has seven.) In a few years he would be forty. He was getting tired, he said.

So was his cousin. Garner had moved out to Staten Island with his family, hoping for a fresh start. He found a job planting trees for the Parks Department. But when the ground froze up, so did the work. He occasionally helped out an uncle who ran a construction company in Newark, but it was hard work, and Garner was a big man with asthma. Those jobs never lasted very long either. At some point, an acquaintance introduced him to the loosie business. It turned out you could make decent money selling untaxed “loose” cigarettes on a busy sidewalk. Not drug money, Eberhart noted. But the penalties weren’t nearly as severe. “When you’re free,” Eberhart said, “nobody wants to get locked up.”

Eberhart made a cleaner break from the street life. Despite his prison record, he got an extermination license and eventually opened his own pest-control business. He moved to Long Island, then Delaware, and bought a house with a yard. But Coney Island was never far from his mind. As a younger man, he caused his fair share of pain in the neighborhood. He’d been a “known bully,” he said, always spoiling for a fight. In this respect, he’d been different from Garner. Maybe it was a height thing—the shorter guy needing to prove himself. Garner had always been a “gentle giant,” he said.

One day in 2006, Eberhart told Garner he needed some help. Eberhart and some of their mutual friends were planning to hold an event to honor all the people they knew who had died. They would call it “Remembrance Day,” giving it the aura of an official holiday, like Memorial Day, or Independence Day. There would be a barbecue, musical performances, even a basketball tournament. Pastors and other notables would be invited to speak. The police would keep watch. It would be a chance for residents to acknowledge their losses as a community. It might not stop the violence, but at least it would get people talking about it. Maybe, one day, it would lead to something bigger.

Garner said he would supply the fish. And that’s what he did. Every summer for eight summers, he trucked over hundreds of pounds of whiting from a wholesale market on Staten Island. He manned the fryer, feeding people from morning to night. Not that this made him exceptional. He was just one of many people from the community who helped make the day a success.

Each year, the event got bigger. Unfortunately, so did the list of names on the banner. Last year, a new name was added—Joseph Flagg.

Flagg was Garner’s uncle, the one with the construction company in Newark. Three teenagers allegedly gunned him down in a deli he owned on the side. Flagg was 41 years old. His family told reporters that he’d always made a point of hiring young men who didn’t have many other opportunities. “They didn't only take my brother,” Steven Flagg told ABC. “They took somebody away from the community that other people needed for hope and other people needed to survive.”

This year, the party took place a day after the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. As you might expect, it drew a big crowd—the biggest yet. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, arrived with several of the other women who had endured her particular form of tragedy—the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Michael Brown.

Al Sharpton spoke. The Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative, a local organization modeled loosely on the nationally renowned Cure Violence Initiative, contributed $2,500. Nathan’s donated boxes of its famous hot dogs.

Eberhart said he missed his old friend, but he didn’t want to dwell on his death. Sitting by a bench off to the side of the party, he said the point of the event was to remember how the dead had lived, not how they’d died. He made no exception for Garner, whose death helped spark a national movement. So much had already been said about why Garner had died, what it meant. Eberhart seemed content to let others do the talking. “There’s an anger,” he said, “and the anger still lingers. But there’s nothing much you can do.”

“Just cherish his life,” he added, after a moment, “as each year goes on.”