Mothers of Eric Garner and Stephon Clark speak out in wake of George Floyd's death

As protests spread across the country, Gwen Carr and Se'Quette Clark, who lost their sons to police violence, continue to make their voices heard in the fight for justice.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Robin Sindler and Ree Hines

The death of George Floyd has sparked outrage across the country as protesters have taken to the streets to speak out about what they see as a pattern of racism and injustice against black people at the hands of police.

But for Gwen Carr and Se'Quette Clark, the fight for justice has been going on long before the current wave of outrage drove others to speak out. Like Floyd, their sons’ lives were lost during altercations with the police.

Eric Garner, 43, died in July 2014 after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold during a confrontation in Staten Island. Garner repeatedly said, "I can't breathe," as police held him down. Family Photo / National Action Network via AP

In 2014, Carr’s son, Eric Garner, died as a New York police officer held him down in a choke hold that had been banned for decades. Garner repeatedly called out, “I can’t breathe,” just as Floyd did before his death in Minneapolis last week.

“He had this big personality, this beautiful smile,” Carr said of her son, who was 43 when he died. “And my son, he was just the love of family. He was the life of the party at every function.”

Carr, a mother of three, said she still lives with fear for the rest of her family, a fear she said many other black mothers in America share.

“Well, every day, I am afraid not only for my children, for all children; I'm afraid for them walking the streets,” she said. “I don't like to even look at the news because when I look at the news, I see another story. This one got shot. This one got beat. It's always our black boys from our black communities that's getting shot down.

"When they go out, if I hear any noise outside, here I go, running to the window, because you don't know who's going to come up and say your child is dead. Your child been shot," she said. "So, this is what we go through as black mothers in America.”

Stephon Clark died at the age of 23 after Sacramento police shot him in the backyard of his grandmother's house. Officers thought he had a gun, but it was a cell phone. Courtesy of Sonia Lewis

Those words struck a chord with Clark, whose son, Stephon Clark, was killed in 2018. Sacramento officers fired 20 shots at him as he stood in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, holding a cellphone they mistook for a gun.

“His nickname was Big Papa,” she said, thinking back to the day her “heart was crushed.” “He was just a personality. He was a life force. Like, he just brought the life to the party.”

And long before he lost his life, she spoke to him about the potential dangers of interacting with police as a black man. She called it a “life lesson.”

“Stephon, I don't care — right or wrong — when you deal with the police, you stop, you use your manners, you use your ‘yes ma'ams’ and ‘no sirs,’ you make eye contact, you keep your hands still,” she would tell him. “You do not pose a threat, because they will kill you.”

Protestors in Boston Sunday rally against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Brian Snyder / Reuters

For Carr, when news of Floyd’s death broke last week, complete with video, it brought back a flood of memories and painful parallels.

“I could hear Eric's voice echoing from the grave: ‘I can't breathe,’” she said, referring to the words Floyd cried out. “And then when the young man said, ‘Momma,' that was like Eric calling out to me and saying, ‘Mom, you have to do something about this. This is still happening.’ And it just broke my heart.

"There's so many of us out there," she said. "My son and George, we were caught on camera. There was hundreds in between us that never got caught on camera, who no one has ever seen. And they're out there, in the street, saying, ‘Give us justice, because we had none.’”

A former Minneapolis police officer who was filmed pressing his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes during his arrest has been charged with murder.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was shown on video putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The other officers involved the arrest were fired.

Clark called those developments "a victory" and a step toward justice.

"I know of many mothers getting lots of money from cities. But I've never heard of officers being fired immediately. I just was like, 'Oh my God,'" she said.

"It's justice. It's saying that our lives, the lives of our children, matter ... I think that if everyone stopped and took a moment to focus on the fact that George Floyd mattered, Stephon Clark mattered, Eric Garner mattered, we matter. And I thank God for that. I thank God that change is coming."

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