Gwen Carr’s Sorrow and Strategy: Mother of Eric Garner Addresses Social Work Students
Gwen Carr, subway train operator turned activist and mother of Eric Garner, recently visited Columbia’s School of Social Work as the guest of Dr. Courtney Cogburn’s Human Behavior and the Social Environment (HBSE) class. She spoke to students about how she learned of her son’s death, the toll it has taken on her family, and why she has now joined the movement for justice.
Eric, a 43-year-old unarmed black man, was killed during a struggle with Staten Island police in July 2014. When the officers involved were not indicted, nationwide protests ensued, and policing practices were scrutinized by police departments and public officials around the country. Nearly one year after the incident, the City of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the Garner family in an effort to settle the major civil rights claim and give the family closure. Though the settlement was the biggest of its kind in New York City, Carr said at a press conference: “Victory will come when we get justice.”
Carr has since been working to continue the movement on behalf of families with “stolen lives.” Her surprise appearance at Columbia transpired after she met current student Rebecca Bowe (MSW’17) at a women’s empowerment conference. Bowe in turn approached Dr. Cogburn about inviting her to address their HSBE class. Dr. Cogburn welcomed the opportunity. “I wanted students to have an opportunity to have a first-hand experience with someone who was so closely impacted by a major national event,” said Dr. Cogburn. “I also hoped that Ms. Carr would be able to share personal details about Eric that would be complicate and enhance the image of Eric that was spun in the media.”
Dr. Cogburn further noted that, because of the circumstances surrounding Eric Garner’s death, “Ms. Carr’s coping with that loss encompasses many of the issues we cover in the HBSE course, including racism and oppression as well as stress and stress regulation.”
In a calm and conversational tone, Carr described the day she became a mother, as well as the day she learned Garner had died—at the time of his death, she was midway into a shift, driving the N train to Astoria, Queens. Carr said she has come a long way emotionally from that Friday morning, vowing to turn her mourning into a movement. She also encouraged the room full of aspiring social workers and academics (whom she called “social justice students”) to be preemptive and objective in their work.
“Maybe we can save someone else,” she said, “I can’t save the world, but maybe one, two, three people.”
After her presentation, Carr answered several questions from students about movement building, self-care practices, and how Eric’s kids are doing. When asked what she would say to the police officers who killed her son, she responded:
They need to be held accountable for their gross misconduct on that day… Religiously we are supposed to forgive…I’m not there yet…I lost my son. They still go home to their children…I will never have a normal life again.
—Contributed by Eryn Ashleigh Mathewson