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"I march for my son, but I march for the rest of the world too."

Gone too soon

Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr remembers her late son

By Jennifer Perry on May 9, 2015

Gwen Carr calls her life a “storybook” and the early years she spent with her three children were no different from other mothers — they were marked by busy school days, joyful holiday mornings, and, of course, occasional sibling rivalry. “All in all they usually got along pretty good because they knew all of each other’s secrets that I didn’t know,” Carr told Women in the World as she laughed.

But Carr’s journey has taken her down an unexpected path, one where she outlived her 24-year-old son Emery and 43-year-old son Eric, whose death at the hands of an NYPD officer drew national attention and sparked public protest against police brutality. “It sort of breaks me down, but I try to stay strong,” said Carr. “I’m not as strong as I may seem to be, but I’m still hanging in there. By the grace of God, I’m hanging in there.”

Carr, a retired MTA worker, has found purpose in tragedy. She spends her days advocating with other families whose unarmed sons have been killed by police. Most recently, she met with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to request an executive order for a special prosecutor for cases like her son’s.

Women in the World visited the mother of three in her Staten Island home to hear stories of Eric’s childhood and find out what it’s like to be his mother. In a moving video, Carr also shows an intimate memorial she created in her living room for her son.

Women in the World: What is it like to be Eric’s mom?

Gwen Carr: I was very proud to be his mom. Even from a child up to an adult, Eric was always a funny child. But he was very respectful, and even if I yelled at him, he never yelled. He never did that. We enjoyed each other.

WITW: Can you tell us a little bit about that first moment you saw him?

GC: From the first moment that I saw him, we could tell that he was going to be a child that was going to eat a lot (laughter). From the first day that he was born, he was just looking at me and I was looking at him. I was talking to him, the things we were going to do together and that I was going to try to provide the best life that I could for him.  Which, we weren’t rich, we weren’t poor— maybe when he was born we were more poor than rich — but I did have the means to support him.

WITW: What was your relationship like, later on as he grew?

GC: He was always a child that asked a lot of  questions, a lot of funny things come to mind as Eric being a youngster. I think I was taking him to the health station. He was about three then and there was a guy near the clinic that was about four blocks from where we lived. And this guy was sitting outside. I’d known him a long time ago, but he had to have both of his legs amputated up to his knees, so he was sitting in his wheelchair and he had his pants, just draped there.

Eric kept looking at him, looking at him, but he wasn’t saying anything. I had him by the hand, but I was talking to some other people and I turned around and looked and Eric had the man’s pants, looking in. I was so embarrassed! I said, “Eric, if you don’t stop!” So the fella says, “No, leave him alone, he’s curious.” I was just, I was floored looking and seeing him do this.  I had to walk away because I was just too embarrassed to stay. So I said, “Eric, what was you looking for?” He said, “I wanted to know where his shoes was.” I says, “Eric, his legs are cut off. He don’t wear shoes!” I was trying to explain it to him but, you know, he didn’t understand what I was really saying. He used to do a lot of little crazy things as a child.

WITW: What do people not know about him?

GC: What they may not have known is how close he was with me. He would come and he would tell me things that I think he didn’t tell anybody else. We would sit and talk and I’d listen to what he says, even if I thought it was wrong or right, then I would give my opinion on it. I could look up, 6:00 a.m. he’s at my house or 12:00 a.m., when you think he’s home, he was at my house.

I would just say, “Well, what’s the matter Eric? What happened now?” Sometimes he would say, “Oh nothing, I just miss you.” But then I’d say, “Oh something is wrong, you could have came in the morning to see me if you miss me or you could have called me. What’s wrong?” Then we would get into whatever it was that was bothering him and we would discuss it, but it would be just me and him.  I appreciated that because a lot of kids don’t do that.

WITW: What do you think is the best advice you ever gave him?

GC: As my children were growing up, I gave them advice about being a good man. Growing into a respectful person and a person that someone could look up to. He did that pretty well because even now, if you speak to anyone they speak very highly of him. Even a minister that I didn’t even know until this incident happened said that whenever he ran into Eric on the street, Eric always stopped and had a conversation with him. He said we’d have a couple of short words together and then every time Eric would leave, he would never say “bye.” He would say, “Share the love minister. Share the love.” He said that was his parting words every time. Even homeless people came up to my granddaughter to say, “You know your father used to feed me. He used to buy me a sandwich every day I saw him.”

WITW: Hearing all those things, and finding out how much he was loved — how does that make you feel as a mom knowing who your son grew up to be?

GC: It’s very heartwarming. It’s a lot of encouragement in that. It made me feel really good. That the people I met that I didn’t know respected him a great deal.

WITW: What were the things you were most proud of as his mom?

GC: Well I was proud of him in his early days when he was going to school. He loved school, sometimes you would get kids like my daughter. Oh boy, I had to like throw her out the house sometimes to get her to go to school. I was working and going to school and the boys, they were like in first grade and second grade. I would say to them, you know mommy got to go to work and you have to go to school so you can’t play sick. We gotta be troopers, we gotta get outta here and we gotta go in the morning. And from then, I didn’t have a problem with them.

One day we got home very late, when I did get up, it was already 7:30 and the bus was out. Oh my goodness and it was pouring down rain that day, I’ll never forget. So I told the bus to go ahead, he wasn’t going. That day that boy bugged me all day long. “Oh if I was in school, I’d be in gym. Oh, if I was in school, I’d be in English. Oh, I would be this place, and I’d be there.” I said, “You know what, tomorrow you will be in school because you’re not going to stay here and bug me like this, AGAIN.” That boy, he loved school, but the only complaint I used to get from school, he used to do his homework in school (laughter). So when the teachers complained I said “Why do you do your homework in other classes? Come home and do your homework.” He said, “When I come home I have other things to do. I gotta go outside because you know we gotta be up here before the sun go down. So I gotta get outside and play before the sun go down so I got other things to do when I come home.” So he was a trip.

WITW: What does it feel like to be the mother of a black son in America?

GC: To me it was basically normal until this happened. We know the problems in America. Although they say this is free America, we know it’s not really free America, but we deal with it. There’s so many things that have gone on, but they say the longer you live the more things are going to happen. So I just try to take it in my strides.

Katie Booth/Women in the World
Katie Booth/Women in the World

WITW: What do you feel when you see similar incidences repeated?

GC: It’s discouraging. It’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s like them killing my son over and over again. It’s got to stop at some point. They keep killing unarmed men, men who’s actually not doing anything and these individuals end up dead. How is that always happening? And it’s always mostly to people of color or Latinos. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. That’s just a cruel thing, to shoot someone down. Every time they shoot someone, they shoot to kill. Like they’re animals. I have no right to take your life, you have no right to take mine. You didn’t give me my life and you have no right to take it. I’m totally against what these people are doing. It’s so inhumane, so brutal what they do to us.

WITW: How did you feel about the riots in Baltimore?

GC: I think the rioting, that was a bad call. I think about it on both sides. You don’t burn up where you live. You have to shop there, you have to work there, your children go to school there. Why tear up where you live? Then there was a lot of black businesses there that people work for years and strive to save money to establish a business and now they get looted, burnt to the ground. That’s not fair to an individual, they did nothing to you. So that part — you don’t burn your city down. If you’re going to protest you do it right. Do it strongly, but peacefully.

WITW: What’s going on now with Eric’s case?

GC: Right now it’s at a standstill, we haven’t heard back from the federal government. We’re still waiting, we’re still protesting, we’re still marching, we’re still going to meetings.  I march for my son, but I march for the rest of the world too, because nobody deserves it. Nobody deserves that treatment. We’re looking for the police to protect, instead they disconnect and that’s the sad part of it. I never really gave it a second thought until after the death of my son, and then I see how cruel some of these individuals are towards us. But now I think the whole world sees. No matter what color, what nationality, what religion, people are seeing what the police are doing to us as a people and it has to stop at some point. And if we don’t take a stand it’s never going to stop.

This interview has been edited and condensed