Nearly six years and 1,200 miles separate the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner, who both died at the hands of police while repeatedly pleading, “I can’t breathe!”
On May 25, after learning of the identical, video-recorded last words, the pettiness of their alleged crimes and the attacks on their characters, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, became determined to contact Floyd’s family.
Two days later, she reached Floyd’s brother and sister, Terrance and Bridgett Floyd.
“I offered my deepest sympathies. I told them that I know how they’re feeling because it brings me back to the day that my son was murdered,” Carr said. “I can just feel that energy, that sadness.”
She paused before adding, “That dark place. The same place that I was in.”
Carr told the Floyd siblings, who have been active in drawing attention to their 46-year-old brother’s death in Minneapolis, that she’d always be there to support them.
“I just told them that, ‘No matter what, you can depend on me if you need me,’” Carr recalled Monday during a phone interview from her Staten Island home.
She offered Floyd’s family one stark piece of advice: “Don’t forget. You cannot let this go.
“Keep the fight up no matter what happens with the cameras,” said Carr. “The cameras are going to go away, the people are going to go away, but you still fight for your loved one.”
‘Enough is Enough’
Carr, 70, speaks from experience. Since July 2014, she’s been a tireless advocate in the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for justice for Garner, who died on Staten Island’s Bay Street after then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold.
She talked with THE CITY following what she said was an exhausting three days in which she spoke at demonstrations in Manhattan and Staten Island, and reeled from images of a cop lodging his knee in Floyd’s neck during an arrest over an allegedly phony $20 bill.
She’s also been watching footage of cops clashing with protesters in New York and across the country.
Carr said Monday that she would prefer peaceful protests, but said she understands demonstrators’ anger and frustration at what she called a seemingly never-ending plague of police brutality incidents.
“I don’t condone violence, but, my God — what’s it going to take to make the police respect our communities? Make them look at us like we are human beings and not just someone that they can terrorize, brutalize and murder?” she asked.
“Enough is enough.”
She added that she was disturbed to see an NYPD cop push a young woman to the ground — and she decried Mayor Bill de Blasio’s seeming defense of officers who rammed SUVs into a human blockade in Brooklyn Saturday.
“Those police officers should be out there protecting protestors, not brutalizing them, like some of them are doing,” said Carr. “They’re pushing women down on the ground, they’re knocking people’s heads up on the ground. This is all unnecessary.”
‘Justice for Everybody’
Carr’s seen before how protests can quickly spread through a city and a country.
After a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in the death of her 43-year-old son, whose alleged crime was selling untaxed cigarettes, demonstrations flashed in New York and beyond.
Carr pivoted to pushing the federal Department of Justice to take action. It was around this time, in early 2015, that she retired from her job as a train operator for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to fully commit herself to what she deems a modern civil rights movement.
Since then, she’s rallied with several other mothers to draw attention to the police killings of unarmed black people and joined Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016.
As the NYPD prepared last year for Pantaleo’s departmental trial, she ramped up her efforts, frequently holding news conferences in May and June 2019 in front of One Police Plaza as new details regarding her son’s death trickled out.
A day before the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death, the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t bring federal charges forward to any of the officers involved.
A month later, on Aug. 19, Pantaleo, who had been found guilty at the administrative trial, was fired from the NYPD.
On Friday, Carr stood with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at Foley Square before raucous protests overtook parts of the city during the weekend.
On Saturday, she stood with the Rev. Al Sharpton in front of 202 Bay St., where Garner died, to kick off a rally where hundreds marched to the 120th Precinct and chanted “Eric Garner! George Floyd!”
The crowd quieted before Carr spoke: “I kept marching, even when the DOJ said they would not prosecute five years to the day when my son was killed. We said then and now: You’re gonna stop, we are not.
“We have to get justice for everybody.”