The killing of George Floyd evoked a sense of déjà vu for many, but no one more than Gwen Carr. The mother of three had been here before: hearing of the death of a Black man whose last words included the plea, “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd uttered those three words with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck on May 25. But six years ago, those were the words Carr’s own son, Eric Garner, yelled as an NYPD cop held him in a chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk on July 17, 2014.
Both men’s deaths sparked national protests and outrage. And as she did in the wake of her own child’s killing, Carr knew she needed to act. Carr, who still lives on Staten Island, flew to Minnesota to attend Floyd’s funeral and meet his family.
“I had this feeling like, ‘no, this is not happening again...’ this eerie feeling,” Carr told Inside Edition Digital. “I felt it personal to go and visit with the family. I spoke with the family to tell them I give them my deepest sympathy. I said, ‘I empathize with you, because I know what you're feeling, because I know what I felt on that day.’”
Carr’s words came as she sat on a park bench on Staten Island and looked toward the Verrazzano Bridge. Her face was covered in a mask that read “I can’t breathe.” Always keeping her son’s last words, which have become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, close by and visible to all the world.
Carr agreed to an interview despite the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that she was preparing for her aunt’s funeral that same week. She saw it as an opportunity to continue to advocate for Garner, something she has been doing since his death.
On July 17, 2014, Garner was allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island when NYPD officers attempted to arrest him. In a video that has been watched worldwide, an officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a chokehold as he dragged him onto the ground. Pantaleo did not release his grip on Garner’s neck, despite 43-year-old Garner telling officers repeatedly he couldn’t breathe. Garner was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
In Dec. 2014, a grand jury ruled not to indict Pantaleo for using the chokehold, despite the coroner’s ruling that Garner’s death was a homicide. In 2019, a day before what was the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death, federal prosecutors announced they wouldn’t bring charges against Pantaleo, either. Pantaleo was fired in August 2019 after a long-awaited internal departmental trial that found he violated NYPD’s ban on using chokeholds. Pantaleo denied wrongdoing and claimed Garner was resisting arrest. He is currently suing to get his job back.
Since her son’s death, Carr has pushed for the repeal of law 50-a, which protected police disciplinary records from being released to the public. The repeal was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo June 12. The record of Pantaleo was finally released. It revealed Pantaleo was the subject of 17 complaints, resulting in seven disciplinary misconduct cases. Three of the cases, including the one concerning Garner, were “substantiated.”
Carr also advocated for the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalizes officers using chokeholds that cause injury or death. It was also signed into law earlier in June. Carr said both changes were a “step in the right direction,” but she maintains that what has been accomplished is the result of countless hours of work, most of which wasn’t in the public eye.
“The past five years have been very, very trying for me,” Carr said. “A lot of times people see us out in front of the cameras, but there was so much work done behind [them]. I did a lot of footwork. I went up to Albany to talk with the lawmakers. I’ve been to different courts.”
No matter how much work Carr does, her tireless advocacy will never bring back her son, a fact of which she is acutely aware. She’s long lived with the loss only a mother who outlives her child could know; it’s one she knew even before Garner was taken from her. Garner was one of Carr’s three children. Carr’s other son, Emery, was also killed more than two decades ago. She only has her daughter left.
“Even though the whole world saw my son murdered on video, and they heard him cry, ‘I can't breathe,’ 11 times, the officer still got away without getting any charges,” Carr told Inside Edition Digital. “There could be no justice for Eric, because Eric is gone.”
For Carr, a retired train operator, activism and spending time with her family help her cope with her loss. Meeting with other mothers who have also lost their children to violence provides solace, she said.
Carr’s journey, like many Black women who have lost children, has not been easy.
“We as Black mothers always have to have a different conversation than our white counterpart mothers, because we worry about when the police officers stop our children,” Carr said. “It's not if they're going to stop our children, it's when they're going to stop our children.”
Her resilience through it all is apparent, but also a reminder that Black women are often praised for being strong, while people ignore the societal racism that calls for that type of strength in the first place.
“There are so many mothers that people don't even know about. The news media don't know about them. They never got on TV or in the newspaper,” Carr said. “And some of these mothers are so stressed out, they can't get out of bed. Other mothers are on medication and there's other mothers who have attempted suicide. They are in a bad place and nobody knows who they are.”
Dr. Seanna Leath, an assistant professor of community psychology at the University of Virginia, said the stereotype of the “strong Black woman,” often seen as admirable, can be detrimental to the mental health of Black women.
“That strength and resilience and our ability to fight back against systems and to overcome all this adversity with grace is a very positive thing,” Leath told Inside Edition Digital. ”The downside for mental health is when strength is socialized as the positive attribute, it takes away from your ability to express your full range of emotions. It’s not being able to then name and talk about when you are stressed, anxious, or depressed.”
Studies show the stereotype that Black women are stronger or able to handle more physical and emotional pain is directly connected to depressive symptoms of women of color. Black women statistically bear the burden of higher exposure to traumatic events and less access to healthcare. Mental health issues can often go undiagnosed because of that lack of access and the added stigmatization of seeking mental health treatment in the Black community.
Stress and trauma can also have a direct effect on the health of those suffering. Chronic stress is known to increase inflammation in the body, which has been linked to autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular problems.
Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, died in 2017 of a heart attack at only 27 years old, leaving two children behind. She had advocated tirelessly for her father as well, and Carr said she believes Erica died of a “broken heart.”
Carr said that after the death of her son, she sought therapy and was prescribed medication she decided against taking. She also never returned to therapy.
“I got it filled. I sat it up on my dresser and I said to myself, do you really want to take this medication? So you really won't know what's going on around you? And at that point I told myself no matter how I hurt, on no matter what's put in front of me, I'm not going to take this medication,” she said.
Carr now creates her own spaces where she feels uplifted. She said advocating helps her to feel empowered. Carr founded the non-profit organization “E.R.I.C.” (Eliminating Racism and Inequality Collectively) and facilitates a program called “This Stops Today,” which is focused on helping victims of violence and families who are facing tragedy feel heard.
Although she has been on the front lines for her son— speaking out when other Black men are killed by police, comforting and bringing hope to other mothers who are feeling similar pain and advocating for law changes— Carr acknowledges that at times it can all feel very heavy. Some days are better than others.
“It's been a hard, hard road that I've traveled,” Carr said. “Sometimes I do get tired of being the face [of a movement], but I know that it's necessary to keep my son's name out there, to keep people knowing what I'm doing. That I'm not just sitting back. I'm not just moaning over my son's death. I'm trying to make a change. I'm trying to make a difference for everyone who's out there and I need them to do the same.”
When Carr got a call from Rev. Al Sharpton, asking her to fly to Minnesota to attend Floyd’s funeral, she knew she had to go. She wanted to show her support and stand in solidarity against continued police brutality, regardless of the fact that Floyd’s death triggered her own memories and feelings of losing her son. Allisa Charles-Findley, sister of Botham Jean, who was killed in his Texas apartment, and Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, were also in attendance.
“All of these families came to stand with this family because they know better than anyone else the pain they will suffer from the loss that they have gone through,” Sharpton said at the funeral as he acknowledged their attendance.
It’s through that knowledge that comes a piece of advice Carr has for others— especially mothers— dealing with tragic loss.
“Don't let anyone tell you how long to grieve, how to heal, or when you're grieving should be over,” she said. “That is all entirely up to you. Because we as mothers know that our grieving is never over. We have good days. We have dark days. We're in good moods. We're in bad moods.
“Sometimes we don't feel like getting out of bed, but we know we have to.”