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Read an Excerpt from This Stops Today

The mother of Eric Garner on her search for justice after losing her son.

This Stops Today Eric Garner's Mother Seeks Justice After Losing Her Son by Gwen Carr with Dave Smitherman foreword by...

On July 17, 2014, I was working as a train operator for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. I had just driven to Queens and was taking a break when my phone started blowing up. Calls, messages, they just kept coming. I was underground and totally unaware of the happenings in the bustling city above. I could tell from the sheer volume of messages that something was wrong, but I was working and couldn’t get the whole story. Something about my son, Eric. I called my husband, Ben, and said, “I just heard that something happened to Eric. I’m not sure what’s going on. Can you meet me at Stillwell Station? I’m on my way there now.”

I climbed back into the train and headed that way, my mind racing. I wasn’t allowed to check my phone while I was driving, and the suspense was making me a nervous wreck. I still hadn’t figured out exactly what had happened to my son. Then I realized that I was rocking back and forth, trying to will the train to go faster. I could feel the anxiety building up inside me. When I arrived at the station, I was alarmed to see Ben standing in the office waiting for me. “What are you doing up here? You can’t be in here. I’ll get in trouble. I told you to meet me downstairs.” I was furious that he was breaking the rules at my job.

“Gwen, It’s ok. They let me in. You won’t be in trouble. I told them that you needed to get home.”

I was still confused, and I had a strange feeling in my stomach. When we got downstairs, I started questioning him nonstop. “What’s going on? Did you hear anything? What happened to Eric?”

He said, “We’re headed to the hospital to see him. He should be there now.”

“Hospital? What do you mean he should be there? I don’t understand! We need to call somebody to find out exactly what happened!”

“Make sure to put your seatbelt on,” he said.

“I have my seatbelt on. I—” Just then his phone rang. I couldn’t hear what the person on the other end was saying, but I could tell by the look on his face that it was bad. “Was that about Eric?”

“Yeah, he’s there, so we going to the hospital to see him now.”

I tried to calm myself down. “Ok, but what did they say?” He was silent. “Is anything wrong with my son? Tell me! Tell me!”

He looked at me and I saw tears streaming down his face, something I’d never seen before. I was truly getting scared.

“Gwen, Eric is dead.”

I don’t remember much after that. He told me later I was flailing my arms and legs, trying to kick the door open and bust out the window. I was a mother in pain. He had to turn on the automatic locks to keep me safe. He had tried to reason with me. “Gwen, we will be there soon! Please leave the door alone!”

I’m not sure what was going through my mind, but I do recall thinking that if I could just get out of the car, I could run faster. I could get to my son. I could help him. My boy needed me. My mind was spinning. This couldn’t be happening again. It couldn’t be real. I couldn’t have lost another child. There had to be some explanation.

On the way to the hospital, Ben tried to get assistance from a police officer. He was of no help, but at the time I didn’t understand his reluctance. When we got to the hospital, they told Ben that I couldn’t go in since I was obviously in no condition to see my son. We went home so that we could try to find out what had happened. I remember sitting in the living room just feeling numb, not sure what was going on. Nothing was making sense to me. Everything around me seemed to be moving really fast and in slow-motion all at once. It was like my senses couldn’t comprehend what was happening around me.

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I tried a trick that I had heard about on some TV show. I needed something to focus on, so I chose Eric’s graduation photo which was displayed on the wall in a neat row along with mine and my two other biological children, Emery and Elisha. As I looked at Eric’s beaming face, I remembered how proud I was of my firstborn that day. Then I focused on my breathing. As I continued to focus on the photo, I took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and exhaled. Then I turned my attention to my right foot. Still looking at the photo, I squeezed it and then relaxed it, then moved on to the left foot. This sounded silly when I heard it, but at this moment it gave me a sense of control. My mind was focused on one small task and that brought me a brief sense of calm.

Just then the front door slammed shut, yanking me back into the harsh world I was trying to escape. Family members kept coming by in a steady stream and that damn front door slammed each time, causing me to jump in my seat. The relaxation was short-lived, and once again I was a nervous wreck. My mind was like a pressure cooker as I relived the moments leading up to this point. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.

We kept getting bits of information. Police. Cigarettes. Chokehold. Sidewalk. Something happened over on Bay Street in Staten Island, and news in the community travels real fast, especially bad news. I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I knew that something horrible had happened because news reporters began showing up at the house. They had gathered outside, all wanting to talk with us. Just a few hours ago, I was driving the train at work, and now there were reporters outside, all wanting to talk with us. It was a whirlwind, and everything was happening so fast that the family wasn’t sure what to do, what to say, or who to talk to.

Finally, my brother-in-law announced that he thought we should let one reporter in and ask him to print exactly what we told him. That way he felt that at least we would have some control over the message that would apparently be all over the news judging by the number of crews that had gathered outside, constantly asking us for comment whenever someone would enter or leave. The reporter that was chosen came in and talked to each of us. We gave our statements and asked him if he would show us what he planned to print. He seemed very respectful and promised that he would write exactly what we had said. We thanked him for doing that and walked him to the door. Just then he stopped and turned around.

“There’s one thing that I want to tell you before you see it on the news tomorrow morning. We have it as an exclusive.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“There’s a video of the incident.”

***

As people viewed and shared the video many times over, everyone watched as they trapped my son like a caged animal. I have seen parts of it and heard what happened in the remaining portions. Eric was so frustrated with the ongoing harassment, especially because he had done nothing wrong that day. Others even backed him up, trying to reason with the officers and help de-escalate the situation. It’s true that he tried to avoid being handcuffed because he knew that once that happened, he would be totally helpless, once again at their authoritarian mercy.

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He wasn’t aggressive or assertive with those officers. He did what he had always done, tried to calm everyone down and bring reason to the unreasonable, shed light in the darkness. He even asked them to please not touch him. He didn’t struggle with them, just tried to use his words, but they were ignored. This is the part I have not watched, the part where they took him down and he was slammed first into the storefront glass and then the sidewalk. Still he pled for mercy.

As the officers piled on him, one even pushed on his head with such force that he could not get air. His asthma was likely triggered by the stress of the situation and the way they blocked his air flow. It was just inhumane. I can’t imagine a wild animal being treated in such a manner. The cries for mercy and the right to breathe just tear me up. Can anyone imagine if that was their child?

Apparently, it’s obvious that there was something wrong because Eric didn’t move after he was taken to the ground. He was in danger but that was ignored. It just seems to me that common human decency would be to immediately get help, but that didn’t happen. He was obviously in no condition to harm anyone, and still he was left to suffer. Every time I think about how he must have been feeling, my pulse quickens, and I start feeling light-headed.

I can’t explain the feeling of total helplessness that I continue to feel. How could I not be able to protect my son? That was my job on this earth, and this was one time when I couldn’t run to his aid. It wasn’t like when he was an infant and I could feel that something was wrong with his breathing. He was an extension of me and I knew then that he was suffering, that he wasn’t breathing like the other children I’d seen at the hospital. He needed help and I made sure he got it.

Out there on Bay Street, he did not get the same treatment. I was not able to save my son that time. His friends tried to intervene, but they were not able to get close enough to help. They all tried their best by filming and proclaiming his innocence, but the police kept them at bay. If they had felt there was no option but to arrest him, they should have done that without the aggression. It wasn’t necessary. And when it was obvious that something was wrong, why didn’t they get help? Isn’t that a natural human instinct, to help someone when they need it? Weren’t they sworn to protect and serve?

At least with the videos, the incident wouldn’t get swept under the rug like so many others before it. There was now irrefutable evidence of the horrors folks face out here every single day. Finally, the sheer terror and inhumaneness that poor folks have to deal with was captured with no edits and no cuts. It was raw and real, the dirty truth of our world made public.

The one consolation was that with this evidence, things had to change. At least this would save other black men and women from this inhumanity. With social media lit up by the incident, everyone on the planet finally realized that all people deserve human decency and fair treatment.

With every view and share of that evidence, things had to improve. Others would be saved from this travesty because law enforcement would be more cautious from now on. With cell phones pointed at them recording every moment, it meant that things had to get better, they just had to. I was sure that once people saw what happened, Eric’s death would be vindicated, and the officers would pay dearly for what they had done to my boy.

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I was sure of it.

Gwen Carr is the author of This Stops Today. She is the matriarch of one of the largest African-American families on Staten Island. Since the death of her son, Eric Garner, she has been a civil rights activist. Her numerous public appearances include the 2016 Democratic Convention and appearing with Beyonce at the 2016 Video Music Awards. She resides in Staten Island, NY.