Eric Garner died during an arrest in New York City six years ago -- in a police chokehold, saying the words “I can’t breathe.” In the years since, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a national force, and Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, has become an activist, speaking out across the country against police brutality.
Monday night, she had only to come to the mic at New London’s Ocean Beach pavilion and the crowd was on its feet.
She told the audience the worst day of her life was not the day her son was killed -- but the day she had to follow him to the cemetery, knowing he would never leave.
“That was the realization that he was gone from me forever,” she said. “And I thought that I just would never, ever be the same person.”
It was an experience that changed her life in more ways than one -- giving her a mission to speak out for other victims of police brutality.
“Because there are so many men and women who, you don’t know their names,” she said. “We have to say their child’s name. And you must tell your child’s story. Because nobody can tell your child’s story better than you can. You know him, he lay under your heartbeat for nine months.”
The death of George Floyd, under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, hit Carr especially hard.
“It was like an echo from the grave, and I just felt this deep darkness when I heard about it,” she said. “It just gives me a horrible, horrible depression.”
Floyd, just like Garner, died while pleading, “I can’t breathe.” Carr hasn’t seen the video of those 8 minutes and 46 seconds -- since the also very-public death of her son, she doesn’t watch. But she did reach out to Floyd’s family to offer them comfort and give them some idea of what was ahead.
“To have to grieve in public is very difficult,” Carr said. “In fact, sometimes you don’t have time to grieve because you’re so much in the public eye.”
Carr attended Floyd’s Houston funeral, along with the families of several other victims of police violence. She said the hardest part was the silence that was kept for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
“I thought I would lose it,” she said. “It was like it was me -- it was like it was my son, laying there under that officer’s knee. And I just wanted to leave.”
Garner’s 2014 death also sparked protests and, along with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the same year, gave national impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement. But that uprising was nothing like the scale that the country has seen in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
“The pandemic had people inside, isolated, and all you could do is look at TV,” Carr said. “So there was so many people sitting on their couch watching exactly what happened to George Floyd. It makes you come to grips with it.”
Carr has spent years pushing for police accountability bills in New York City and in New York state. And the death of Floyd has also helped, with two milestones for her just this month.
The repeal of a shield law led to the release of the disciplinary record of former officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man who killed Garner. It showed he had seven previous misconduct cases on his record. Pantaleo was fired from his job last August, after an administrative judge at a disciplinary hearing found that he had used a chokehold on Garner. But he has never been criminally charged in the case.
A second win for Carr: Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that bans chokeholds statewide and makes their use punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That measure is named for Eric Garner.
Carr said she’s particularly heartened to see the activism of young people during the recent protests, and by the fact that many white people seem to be aware for the first time of what to people of color can be a daily reality.
“We all live in the same house, we are all under the same roof. We should all be governed by the same rules,” she said.
The next fight for Carr is to see the passage of a federal police accountability law. And these days, she says, she has more hope that such a thing is possible.