By Garrett Cecere
Students, faculty and members of the local community overfilled Mayo Concert Hall on Feb. 6 to hear two women’s powerful stories of loss, recovery and activism, as they continue to advocate for justice and police accountability.
The Black Student Union co-sponsored the event with the department of African American Studies to invite speakers from the Mothers of the Movement organization, a political activist group created by and for the mothers of children who were killed by police or gun violence.
The speakers, Gwen Carr and Samaria Rice, are the mothers of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, both of whom were killed by police officers in 2014.
The deaths of their sons launched Carr and Rice into an ongoing fight for justice.
“What they’re telling me at the Department of Justice is everything is just at a standstill,” Rice said. “There was no indictment, as we all know, for Timothy Loehmann, which was the shooter.”
Carr explained that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a chokehold, heard him say, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times before he died. Pantaleo has remained with the New York Police Department at a desk job.
“How does someone on desk duty make a six-figure salary?” Carr said. “That’s an insult to injury. We know that there was no indictment.”
As Carr and Rice continued to share their experiences, activist and journalist Bakari Kitwana, who moderated the forum, reminded the audience of the importance of activism and perseverance.
“The people that give up are the people that lose,” Kitwana said.
Kitwana lauded Carr and Rice for continuing to be active members of Mothers of the Movement.
“This is a question, I feel, for every black political movement that there has been,” Kitwana said. “What do you do when there is no pathway to justice? What do citizens in a society do when they have exhausted all of the legal, institutional, structured methods of attaining justice, and they still have no justice?”
Kitwana illustrated his point by using a historical example of Vincent Harding, who wrote speeches for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke of Harding’s comparison of the Black political struggle to a river, saying that every new generation spawns people, leaders and organizations to jump in the river and keep it flowing.
“We’re in the river,” Kitwana said with a laugh. “We’re in the river right now and we need to inspire that next generation … to jump in here with us.”
Diamond Hackley, a junior psychology major and president of BSU, met with Carr, Rice and Kitwana backstage before introducing them to the audience.
“They were so kind and welcoming backstage,” Hackley said. “It was really awesome to share that moment.”
Hackley admitted that while she felt nervous introducing Carr and Rice, they made her feel calm before appearing onstage.
“They were just … that mother sense of trying to calm me down,” she said. “And they told me, ‘no matter what, just keep talking. Just relax ... you’re here for a reason.’ And they were just really, really encouraging.”
Hackley believed that there was no better time to hold the event, given the racial incidents that occurred on campus last semester and the sanctions that Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Stallings announced in a campus-wide email on Feb. 1.
Hackley also thought that hearing the experiences of Carr and Rice showed students the reality of life for African-Americans, as well as reasons and methods for change.
“No matter what role you are, what ethnicity you are, we all have a job to do in terms of bettering our community and bettering our country,” she said. “I feel like having (Carr, Rice and Kitwana) to … encourage us and help us to understand what that really looks like on … a human level, it meant so, so much."
Kitwana continued the forum by asking Carr and Rice about their recoveries and the actions that they have taken to seek justice.
Rice has continued to help other women recover, including Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose, who was fatally shot by police in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in June of 2018.
“When I went out to Pittsburgh, I … went out to support (Kenney),” Rice said. “I just wanted to be there for her. Sometimes it’s good to have that out-of-town support come in.”
Rice said that they support each other as mothers as they continue to give each other strength and love while they recover.
Since she joined the movement in its early stages with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, Rice has been able to connect with many people under similar circumstances not just limited to police brutality.
There were certain events she attended where the mothers described children who died in drownings, car accidents and even in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“I got a chance to meet different types of moms and understand different types of levels of pain,” Rice said. “We all know we just lost a child.”
In terms of educating young people, Rice said she purchased a commercial building last year with the hope of forming a youth center to provide performing arts and political programs.
“Basically, in the inner city of Cleveland there’s no after-school programs,” she said. “I just wanted to give back to my community, back to mothers of children and families … by developing programs to help our youth.”
Rice thought it was important for the teachers there to prepare children for playing important roles in their communities, such as becoming a member of a local municipality.
“I think it starts with a councilman,” she said. “And it goes to being … a mayor to make changes to … support the people in the community because that’s where it all starts at – with the council.”
Rice continued to give back to her community and honor her son by developing the Tamir Rice Foundation. Within the foundation is the current development of the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, where children will be able to participate in various programs surrounding education, culture and art, according to Clevland.com.
“It’s a process,” Rice said. “But I’m not going to stop ’til it’s done because this is what Tamir would have wanted.”
Jasmine Green, a sophomore finance major, particularly enjoyed what Rice said about the foundation and the programs it had to offer.
“I come from an inner city too and we don’t have that many after-school programs that much, so that really resonated with me,” Green said.
Rice than spoke to audience members about what her son’s interests were.
“He liked the normal things from basketball to football to soccer,” Rice said. “Even at 12 years old, he still played with legos.”
Rice said that Tamir also enjoyed video games and shows such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “Scooby-Doo” and “Dragon Ball Z.”
“He had a chance to have that real American life,” she said. “From … playing basketball with the big boys, shooting three-pointers, swimming, from helping little kids at his school with their bookbags, tying their shoes … He was the glue that kept the family together.”
Naomi Odusanya, a sophomore psychology major, felt that the description of Tamir showed the humanity of the speakers and their children.
“I feel like throughout the whole … movement, these people … have become figures and not necessarily a person,” Odusanya said. “So her explaining that to us, it really … humanized (Tamir) and I totally enjoyed it.”
Carr described her recovery from the tragedy of Garner’s death as emotional. She said there were mixed feelings surrounding his death, especially because it happened in such a violent manner. She took to her bed the day after Garner’s death and did not want to get up or see anyone. Ultimately, she turned to prayer for help.
“I’m a very religious person, so I used to pray a lot,” Carr said. “I prayed to God. It looked like one night, it just seems like he whispered in my ear and asked me, ‘Are you going to lay there and die, like your son, or are going to get up and let the world know who he was?’”
About one or two days later, Carr decided it was time to join groups and find out what she could do.
“It’s too late for my son, but the struggle is for the grandchildren, your children, the unborn, because we got to save our generations,” she said.
In 2016, Carr worked with former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on her campaign. She and approximately six other members of the Mothers of the Movement traveled to various cities every week.
Carr read from her new book, “This Stops Today: Eric Garner’s Mother Seeks Justice After Losing Her Son,” which includes a foreword by Clinton.
She read an excerpt from her book that addressed how people are bound to know about the incident due to the video evidence, and that social media would play a vital role in making people aware of the issue.
“‘The one consolation was that with this evidence, things had to change. At least this would save other black men and women from this inhumanity,’” she read.
Carr explained how the first story that came out about Garner’s death reported that he had a heart attack.
“They didn’t know at the time that there was a video,” she said. “Nobody knew.”
Carr said that she belongs to various groups that have helped her move toward change, whether that meant calling press conferences or taking a trip to Albany, New York, to see Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We brought makeshift coffins up to Albany and put them in front of his door,” she said.
They asked him, “‘What are you going to do with these bodies?’”
Carr said that both she and other mothers wanted an executive order that would put cases such as her son’s in the hands of the state attorney general rather than the local district attorney.
In 2015, nearly one year after Garner’s death, Carr and her fellow activists stood behind Cuomo as he signed the executive order.
With every small step of change, she still advocates for justice.
“Pantaleo should have been fired that same week that he murdered my son,” Carr said. “And now that they know… how involved I am now, they know I have no problem going to Albany face-to-face with the governor, with the senators, with the assembly people, because I want what I want and I’m not going to stop ’til I get what I want.”
Carr also noted that there have been many incidents that have not received media coverage.
“You’re also the voice of the voiceless, the face of the faceless, because there are many mothers out there that you all don’t know about.”
Carr made it clear that she would be persistent in her fight for justice and accountability.
“There were at least 12 more officers … involved with my son’s death that day. Some of them filed false reports, some of them pounced on him, some of them didn’t try to de-escalate the situation. I’m going after all their jobs.”
At the end of the forum, both women were asked about what students at the College could do to support the organization’s movement on campus.
Rice said that people could spread the word and see social media pages of the Tamir Rice Foundation, while Carr told the audience about how to serve as sponsors to help bring mothers together for an event she organizes, where they can unite help others who have experienced similar tragedies.
The Garner Way Foundation, according to its website, is dedicated to educating people about combating injustice and racial inequality.
“What I do every year is I bring mothers from all around the country so that we can gather together and … voice our problems and maybe one can help another mother with a problem,” Carr said.
Kitwana closed the forum with a final request of the audience.
“Please educate yourselves on this issue. We cannot let this issue go,” he said. “We cannot live in a country where we let people get killed by the police and nothing happens. This can’t be the end of the story.”