Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York, after a New York City police officer put him in a banned chokehold. The encounter was captured on cellphone video, marking one of the first times in the social media era that Americans witnessed footage of a fatal interaction between law enforcement and a Black man.
In the clip, NYPD Officers Daniel Pantaleo and Justin D’Amico confront Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The 43-year-old denies any wrongdoing. “Please just leave me alone,” Garner says. During the confrontation, Pantaleo puts his arm around Garner’s neck, and with the help of his fellow officers, forces Garner to the ground. Garner, who suffered from asthma, repeats, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before losing consciousness; the phrase immediately became a battle cry for protesters seeking justice.
Ultimately, Pantaleo was fired, though no criminal charges were filed. On June 12, 2020, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which states that any officer in New York state who hurts or kills someone by using a chokehold or “similar restraint” can be charged with a felony. Chokeholds were banned by the NYPD in 1993.
Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, was one of seven mothers who sat down with ABC News' Deborah Roberts for "Good Morning America" to share the stories of the children they lost and their journeys as Black mothers in America.
In her own words, Carr reflects on her son's life and shares her opinions amid growing protests against police brutality.
Essay as told to ABC News' Lesley Messer.
Everyone who knew Eric loved him. He used to say that everyone was his friend. When he was in the seventh grade, there was a kid in his class who was picked on and Eric stopped it. Then he brought the kid home for dinner. That's the type of person he was.
I'm so close with my kids — I birthed three and raised nine. Eric was my oldest. I always emphasized the importance of going to school, getting an education, and having respect for everyone. Eric was so proud of himself — one year, he got 100% attendance and at the end of the day, he ran home and said, "Ma, we did it! We got 100% attendance!" And I said, "You did it. You got 100% attendance." And he said, "But you woke me up every morning."
We used to do lots of things together. We especially liked to go to restaurants for any kind of celebration — birthdays, Mother's Day, graduations. I remember Eric used to look at the menu and he always wanted to order something he'd never heard of before, just to try new things. When he was about 12, he ate every bite of lobster Cantonese. He was a big eater — he was never as big as he was when he passed, but he was always a tall guy. He was 6-foot-5. Medication for his asthma made him larger as an adult.
We hung up, not knowing that would be our last conversation. If I could've only kept him on that phone forever.
I remember the very last conversation I had with Eric — it was the same day [he died]. I called him and asked him why he hadn't gotten in touch with me in the last couple of days, because we always kept in touch, and he reminded me that he had gone to Baltimore for his wife's family reunion. He said, “I know you knew where I was because I told you!” We laughed and talked and at the end of the call, I said, “I love you, Eric.” He said, “I love you too, mom.” And then we hung up, not knowing that would be our last conversation. If I could've only kept him on that phone forever.
At the time, I was a train operator for New York City transit. We can’t have our phones on when we’re on the train, so when I was taking my break, I turned my phone on, and someone was calling me to tell me they heard something had happened with Eric and the police. They didn't know exactly what. Then someone else called me with the exact same information. I called my husband and said, "Pick me up," because it made me very anxious. I knew something bad had happened. I signed out and said I had to go home. When I got into my car seat, my husband told me [that Eric was dead]. I just broke down.
The nightmare was never over. It's worse than a nightmare because at least with a nightmare, you wake up.
I was hysterical. My husband told me I was in no state to go to the hospital and took me home. I just wanted to go to sleep — wait until this terrible nightmare was over. But the nightmare was never over. It's worse than a nightmare because at least with a nightmare, you wake up. This keeps playing over and over in my mind. George Floyd's death was another trigger. I am so sorry about that. His death echoed my son's.
After my son was murdered I had to take a stand. I'm the only one who could tell his truth and my truth. I have to tell the world who my child really was. They made him look like a thug, but my son was not a throwaway. My son was educated. He went to college. He was a lover of football — the New York Giants were his favorite team. He had six children. When he died, he had two grandchildren. Now he has a third.
They made him look like a thug, but my son was not a throwaway.
People say he was selling cigarettes and the cops arrested him, but that's not true. The day he died, he was not selling cigarettes. He had just broken up a fight. The police should have been coming to get the people who were fighting, but instead they stopped him. It was just like it was something they wanted to do. I found out at the departmental trial that when Eric's lifeless body was laying on the hot ground, [an officer] reported it to his commanding officer, and the commanding officer said, "Not a big deal." They almost had to remove me from court. All of those officers should have had criminal charges brought against them. Even though they fired the officer who actually choked him, I think all of those officers need to be fired. I’m still fighting for that.
Police always say they fear for their lives, but really, they fear a tall, Black man walking down the street. That shouldn’t be a fear. These Black men didn't pose a threat to police. They weren’t coming at them with any weapon. Why do they fear for their lives? If they’re that fearful, they’re in the wrong job.
Protesting is not the complete answer. We have to go from demonstration to legislation.
People need to protest to bring about awareness, but protesting is not the complete answer. We have to go from demonstration to legislation, because we could scream and holler in the street all we want and nothing is going to change. If you want to take a knee, you take it in your precinct and tell your police officers to stop murdering our children. Because they come into our neighborhoods, our communities, and they shoot our children. They brutalize our children. And most of the time they don't even have to pay for it.
Some people are just in a moment, but we've got to be about a movement. When I finished demonstrating, I went straight to the lawmakers up in Albany and faced them. I don’t believe in writing letters or telephone calls because I know how far that gets you. I like to look them straight in the face and put my demands out there.
Eric will always be a hole in my heart because they took him away so suddenly. I will never stop fighting.
He may not have been anything to those who took his life, but he was everything to me.
The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.