Derek Chauvin trial brings fresh pain to Eric Garner’s mother

·4 min read

National columnist Suzette Hackney is in Minneapolis for the trial of Derek Chauvin, reporting on the people, the scene and the mood.

MINNEAPOLIS – "I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

Those words have haunted Gwen Carr since 2014, when her son Eric Garner died as a police officer attempted to arrest him in New York. More than 1,200 miles away and almost seven years later, George Floyd would repeatedly utter the same cries nearly 30 times.

"I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

As testimony in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kicked off this week, Carr, 71, traveled to Minneapolis from New York to support Floyd's family. In a flash, the memories, the heartache, the grief and the anger all came flooding back.

"George Floyd laid on the ground saying he couldn't breathe because the police officer was on his neck," Carr told me, sitting in an office just steps from where Floyd died. "My son was on the ground with the police officer's arm around his neck. And neither police officers let up — they just chose to take their lives. It is personal to me for their lives to be stolen in such a manner."

Garner, 43, a Black man, was accused of selling single cigarettes outside a Staten Island convenience store. In a struggle captured on cellphone video on July 17, 2014, former officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD, while ignoring his repeated wails of "I can't breathe." His death ignited protests around the country. Pantaleo was fired but was not criminally charged.

Prosecutors contend Floyd, 46, was killed by Chauvin's knee, compressed against Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes while he was handcuffed and pinned to the pavement. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Carr, who retired from her job as a transit train operator in 2015, has turned to activism — both to keep her son's memory alive and to fight for justice for the next generation of Black and brown people. She's so stoic and dignified, but I sensed her sorrow. It's in her eyes.

In 2019, former Attorney General William Barr declined to bring federal civil rights prosecution against Pantaleo. Still, Carr vowed to continue the crusade against police violence and anti-Black racism. After Floyd died, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a police-reform bill, the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act,” named for her son. The law makes it a statewide felony for an officer to engage in a chokehold except in incidents where they are protecting their own life.

Eric Garner, pictured in a choke hold, died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.
Eric Garner, pictured in a choke hold, died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.

"It's healing in a way and it's taxing in a way," Carr said of her public push to hold officers accountable when excessive force is alleged. "I have different feelings that come out doing this over and over. It's not a picnic. Sometimes it's a lonely journey. It's an unpopular journey. But you have to keep on doing it. You don't want the world to ever forget what was done to your child and what was done to so many others."

While Carr acknowledges there was no justice in the form of criminal charges related to the death of her son, she remains hopeful for the Floyd family. A Chauvin conviction would be "a step in the right direction" for America, she said.

I asked Carr how she coped with the similarities, the reopened wounds that surfaced after Floyd died. She hasn't been able to watch the video of Floyd's death; she hasn't even watched the full video of her son's confrontation with police. It's just too painful.

"I always cry for my son," she said. "I may not break down in front of people. It may be in the midnight hour or whenever it just comes over me. But I do I cry a lot of times.

"It's too late for our children because they're dead and there's no justice for them," Carr told me. "For the mothers and the families who are left behind, there's only closure and that's what we're looking for. I just hope for the best for the George Floyd family."

National columnist Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Chauvin trial brings fresh pain to Eric Garner's mother