ivoh fellow Jaeah Lee spends a year with a mother whose son died in a police shooting
All photos by Erica Deeman and croutesy of Jaeah Lee.
Jaeah, a 2017 ivoh Restorative Narrative fellow, is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Pop-Up Magazine, Vice News, and Mother Jones, among other publications. She is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh fellow Jaeah Lee reported this story for The California Sunday Magazine. It was originally published on August 3, 2017 and is being republished with permission.
That Wednesday began the way it was supposed to. Gwen Woods got out of bed an hour before sunrise, showered, and dressed for work. As she was leaving the house, her phone rang. “God morning,” she greeted Mario, her youngest son. “God morning,” he replied. Every morning since his release from prison 15 months earlier, Mario would call, and they’d talk through their plans for the day. Gwen was about to start her commute from San Francisco to the mental health clinic where she worked as an administrator. Mario was heading to the UPS office to pick up a uniform; the next day would be his first on the job. Gwen reminded him that he had an appointment with his parole officer in the afternoon. “You have a schedule today,” she told him. “Stay on it.”
“Mom, you need anything? You got lunch money?” he asked. Of her three sons, 26-year-old Mario worried about her the most. Gwen liked to say that if her two older sons were ever to put her in a home for the elderly, Mario would be right behind them to rescue her. “I’ll see you tonight,” she said before hanging up. “Love you.”
Gwen, who was 54 years old, made a point to have dinner with her sons almost every night. Sometimes one of them couldn’t attend — that night, it was her oldest, Monroe. The plan was for her to drive back to the city and collect Mario, Michael, her middle son, and a niece. Maybe they would return to the Chinese restaurant with the orange chicken Mario liked, or maybe they’d get takeout and sit by the bay. It didn’t really matter, as long as they were together.
Before leaving work, Gwen checked her phone and noticed a friend’s Facebook post. Did anyone know more about the shooting on Third? he asked. Third Street ran through the Bayview district, a few blocks down from the house she once owned. Monroe still lived nearby. Anytime someone was shot in the Bayview, it was almost guaranteed she knew him or knew someone who did.
“Where’s Mario?” Gwen asked when she arrived at her niece’s home. He normally would have called her two or three times by then, asking when she was going to arrive. Gwen instructed her niece to wait while she went and picked up Michael. As she left, she said, “When you see Mario, tell him to sit down and stay put.”
When Gwen arrived at Michael’s apartment, her phone buzzed with a message from the friend who had posted about the shooting. Gwen opened the message, and a video started playing. She caught a glimpse of a small figure crouching in front of uniformed police officers holding guns. Then the sound of gunshots. She dialed her niece and asked her to go on Facebook. “Tell me it’s not Mario,” she said.
Gwen kept the conversation vague and brief. Michael and Mario were one year apart and close — people used to think they were twins. She didn’t want to alarm Michael unless she was absolutely sure. That would break him, she thought. She headed for the door. Michael asked where she was going. She’d be right back, she told him. She needed to check on something. As Gwen got into the elevator, her niece called. “That’s him, Auntie,” she said.
Later, Gwen would recall only fragments of what she saw in the video that first time. The black baseball cap. The curls of an Afro sticking out from underneath it. The gunshots.
Gwen picked up her niece and two other family members. They called the nearest hospital: There had been no DOAs that night. If the person had died at the scene, they were told, the body would have been taken to the coroner. They drove downtown to the Hall of Justice, a stark concrete complex that houses the county morgue. No one had answers. They headed back to the Bayview and stopped at the police station, where Gwen spoke to an officer behind bulletproof glass who wasn’t any help.
Gwen called Mario and left him messages: “Mar, you’ve got to give me a call back. Call me. Let me know where you’re at.” She texted the friend who had sent her the video to say she thought Mario may have been the person whom the police had shot. He told her to stop playing. Who would joke about something like that? She didn’t want to believe it, either, but she knew that crouched stance, the one he assumed when they argued or when she nagged. “Mom, can we just drop it?” he would plead, leaning forward with his knees bent and his palms pressed together. She knew his black cap. His curly brown ’fro.
After dropping off everyone around midnight, Gwen decided to visit the scene of the shooting. She spotted a knot of people gathered under a streetlamp and two tall trees on Third Street. They had lit candles and placed flowers at the foot of a metal fence. Gwen asked if anyone had a name yet, and people murmured that they didn’t. How kind of them, she thought, to begin mourning before knowing who had died. Someone asked if Gwen knew. “I believe it was my baby,” she said.
A stout man in his late 40s named Shawn Richard stepped forward and introduced himself. Richard ran a local organization called Brothers Against Guns, and he knew people in the police department. He offered to make a few calls. Soon Gwen found herself back on the steps of the Hall of Justice, surrounded by some of the people from the vigil — all strangers — waiting for detectives to arrive. Save for the crowd’s chatter and the occasional passing car, the streets were quiet. Three men in suits turned the corner, and Gwen suddenly felt numb. She would later forget their precise words, but not what they told her: Until the coroner confirmed the identity of the body, they couldn’t be certain, but they believed the victim’s name was Mario Woods.
When officers confronted Mario on December 2, 2015, a city bus was dropping off passengers at a nearby stop; several pulled out cellphones to record what was happening. The first video was shared on Instagram within minutes. A second was uploaded to Twitter and a third to Facebook. In all three, police officers have their guns drawn, shots ring out, and Mario falls. In one, a woman screams, “Oh, my God, oh, my God.” In another, a man yells, “Nigga is going down! Oh! Oh! Oh! Ohhhh!”
Mario Woods was the 906th person in the United States to be shot and killed by police in 2015 — 228 of whom were black men — according to a count maintained by The Washington Post. Mario’s was the sixth fatal police shooting in San Francisco that year. At the time, the city’s police department was facing criticism for ignoring the entrenched racism among its ranks. Within days, Malia Cohen, the city supervisor who represents the Bayview, called the officers in the video “an ethnically diverse firing squad.” Reverend Amos C. Brown, the head of San Francisco’s NAACP chapter, told The New York Times that “Ferguson is here.” News accounts of Mario’s death spread as far as Sydney and Tehran.
The day after the shooting, Gwen met a local ABC News reporter for her first television interview at Duggan’s funeral home, where she had begun making arrangements. She wore a long black coat, silver hoop earrings, and a lavender felt cap that partially concealed her face. The camera zoomed in, exposing the light-brown freckles dotting her cheeks and the wrinkles beneath her eyes. The reporter asked her what she thought of the way her son died. “They executed my child,” Gwen told him. “I thought there was no compassion. I thought they looked at him like he was nothing or nobody or belonged to nobody.” Tears ran down her face. “I just wish I was there, because I swear I would have threw myself in front of him.”
Afterward, Gwen returned to the site of the shooting. She could see where bullets had pierced the metal fence, where Mario’s blood had stained the sidewalk. Rain fell. A crowd bunched around her; camera lights illuminated her damp face. Following a moment of silence, they marched up a hill toward a gymnasium in St. Paul of the Shipwreck Catholic Church, holding up yellow signs and chanting “Murder!” Under a basketball hoop, Gwen addressed a gathering of almost a thousand, clutching a ball of tissue in one hand and a microphone in the other. “They’re going to portray my child as horrible, I guarantee you that,” she told them. “I’m going to be his voice.”
Police Chief Greg Suhr had asked to meet Gwen in private, and the next morning, Shawn Richard accompanied her to his office. According to Richard, Suhr offered his condolences and explained the evidence he planned to present at a town hall meeting that evening — including video frames that he said showed Mario pointing a knife at an officer. For 45 minutes, Gwen sat across from his desk and listened, dabbing tears from her face. She doesn’t remember much, except that Suhr gave her a hug. Gwen would always regret letting him.
Gwen had read enough about police shootings to know she needed legal advice, and the person she immediately thought of was John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights lawyer who had represented Rodney King and other plaintiffs in police brutality and shooting cases in California. When Gwen met Burris, she told him Mario was going to need a champion in the courtroom. He told her to remember that she was first and foremost Mario’s mother. “You don’t have to be an activist,” he said. In the months that followed, she would think about those words often.
On December 11, Gwen filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and county of San Francisco, accusing the police officers involved in the shooting of using “excessive, arbitrary, and/or unreasonable force” and police officials of condoning their behavior. Although Mario was holding a knife, the suit maintained that he never threatened the officers or passersby. It also sought damages, the amount of which would be determined at trial.
One night, Gwen joined a protest outside of the Bayview Police Station. Pacing before a lineup of officers in riot gear, she screamed through tears: “Shoot him down like an animal? For real? Kill him like he’s nothing? Like garbage?” It was one of the few times Gwen would let herself be consumed by rage in public. “You can’t be angry,” she later told me, “because people will think, ‘Oh, he was angry just like his mother.’”
Gwen avoided the video of Mario’s shooting as much as she could, but, inevitably, it found her. The first time was at Michael’s apartment, when a local station replayed the footage. She ran out of the room and yelled for Michael to close his eyes. The second time, in a girlfriend’s living room, Gwen hurried to the kitchen. After it was over, she returned to find her friend crying in front of the TV. The third time, Gwen was alone, watching NewsOne Now with Roland Martin. As the footage flashed, Gwen couldn’t reach the remote in time. She cowered in a corner of the room, squeezed her eyes, and covered her ears. She counted backward from 100, loudly and slowly. She prayed that by the time she reached zero, it would be safe to open her eyes again.
In addition to the official autopsy, lawyers from Burris’s office examined the body. The funeral could not be held for almost two weeks. When Gwen entered Duggan’s for the viewing, she recognized the small, carpeted room. It was the same one where, four years earlier, she held a wake for Michael and Mario’s father. Now flower arrangements and photos of Mario decorated the room. On one wall played a film he had made as a teenager about life in the Bayview and adjacent Hunters Point, featuring interviews with his friends and Gwen.
Mario had sustained so many bullet wounds that the mortician had wanted to enclose the casket in glass, afraid that the body would fall apart on the slightest contact. But Gwen wanted to keep it open. She stood over the casket and leaned in as close as she could to Mario’s face. His skin was caked in makeup, his body dressed in a black suit and red tie, padded from underneath to make him appear less limp. “They had to really pack the head,” Gwen said. “You really couldn’t kiss him because he was so fragile.” She noticed a crack on his right cheek. She wondered if a bullet had flown out of it.
More than 100 people entered the Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church, a two-story white structure that overlooks the sidewalk where Mario was killed. TV vans were parked along the street. Gwen recognized a lot of the faces, but she hadn’t expected to see so many she didn’t know. Her grief began to feel bigger than her own. She saw it in the pallbearers who wore suits and ties to match Mario’s. She saw it in the mother who told her she’d lost her son in an unsolved homicide and in the little girl who asked Gwen for a hug. She saw it in the young men who came up to her to tell her about the times they had been held at gunpoint by the police.
As the casket descended into the grave, Gwen kissed a rose, her lips barely touching its petals before she dropped it into the darkness. She released white doves from a cage. She knew that Mario would have objected to making a spectacle of himself, but she also knew that he would have humored her if it would make her feel better.
Gwen returned to the grave a few days later with two cups of coffee, one for Mario. She would come back again and again to prune the grass. She would buy a headstone inlaid with an image of him looking as though he was squinting into the sun. She and Michael and Monroe would place solar lights around the headstone, then come back at night to make sure they worked, because Mario had never liked the dark. But for now, the site was just a mound of dirt. Gwen sat beside it and thought about digging through with her hands. I might be able to hold him one more time. She knew that sounded insane. But when a mother loses a child, as she would later put it, part of her sanity goes with him.
Gwen’s earliest memory of Mario is the smell of blood while cradling him in the hospital. “He was such a beautiful baby, cute as a girl,” she told me. Mario was that kid, she liked to say: the one who never forgot birthdays or Mother’s Day, the one who was most upset when his parents argued. “That kid looked at me as if I could do any- and everything,” Gwen said, “as if I could move the world.”
When Mario was about 4, Gwen and her husband — whom everyone called “Big Mike” — decided to move to Houston. Gwen’s father objected, asking how she could move back to the state he had left decades earlier to escape Jim Crow. But by then it was the early 1990s, when the Bayview’s poverty and crime rates were among the highest in the country. Gwen told her parents that San Francisco no longer felt like a place to raise children.
In Houston, the family lived out some of their happiest days. Big Mike had a job as a mechanic at the airport, Gwen as a district manager for the Lancôme cosmetics line. He worked during the day, she at night. He cooked dinner for the kids, while Gwen made roasts, homemade fajitas, and Mario’s favorite mac ’n’ cheese with bacon bits and condensed milk on her days off. Each summer, they bought season passes to Six Flags. Mario, who was afraid of heights, usually stuck by Gwen’s side.
In 1999, Gwen’s mother, then a widow, was diagnosed with cancer, and Gwen flew back to take care of her while she received chemotherapy. For a while, Gwen and Big Mike tried to make the distance work. Gwen had hoped to bring her mother to Houston, but the cancer persisted. Eventually, Big Mike gave Gwen an ultimatum: Come back to Houston or go their separate ways. Gwen decided she couldn’t leave, and the kids remained with her at her mother’s house in San Francisco.
For Gwen and her sons, splitting up with Big Mike was the first of a succession of blows. A few months later, her mother died, leaving the house and other assets to Gwen. Her oldest brother and sister sued, claiming a share of the estate, causing a rift within the family. The lawsuit dragged on for nearly three years. A judge dismissed the case, but before it was through, Gwen had spent roughly $40,000 in legal fees, money she had to borrow against the house. Within a few months of the decision, both her brother and sister died of cancer. Gwen had reconciled with her brother, but not her sister.
The lawsuit and single parenthood strained Gwen’s finances, even with a full-time job as an office administrator at a clothing company. She worried how her sons would internalize the turmoil and tried hard to give them a sense of stability — to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, just as her parents had done for her. For five years, Gwen worked weekends at a law office. Sometimes after she had finished up, she would tell Mario she was going to walk by the water before starting dinner. Mario would ask if he could come, but Gwen would tell him to stay home and finish his schoolwork. “I realize now that was supposed to be our time,” she said.
The Bayview had been a rough place for a while, but now Gwen worried when her sons left the house. After Mario entered high school, he began to get into trouble, mostly fights. He was smaller and quieter than many of his classmates, which made him an easy target. “They always wanted him first,” said Rokesha Pineda, his best friend since sixth grade. But there were also arrests — for stealing a Walkman and shoplifting — which led to several months in a group home.
When Mario said he wanted to buy a gun, he and Gwen got into a series of arguments. “I told him, ‘You don’t need that, Mar, you really don’t,’” she recalled. “‘God will protect you.’ He said, ‘God is not out there on the streets with me.’” Then one day, Mario was walking with a girl when he was shot in the leg. “The streets work like this: Either you’re going to be a victim, or you have to be an aggressor,” Gwen told me. “You can talk to a thousand brothers, and they can tell you the struggle.” When Mario was about 16, he and a friend were arrested after police searched the car they were in and found a gun. Mario spent a year in juvenile detention and group homes. “I prayed my sons would make it through their proverb years and into their wisdom years,” Gwen said.
In late February 2008, six months after Mario turned 18, Gwen finished work and drove to the neighborhood basketball court where he played after school. It was routine for her to pick him up, but he asked if he could stay a little longer to finish a game. He never came home.
Along with another man, Mario was arrested and charged with attempted robbery. Prosecutors alleged that during the previous month, Mario had twice held up people at gunpoint inside a billiards hall. On the third attempt, customers rushed Mario and hit him with their pool cues as he tried to escape. When Gwen found out that Mario was in jail, “I wanted to shut everything out,” she told me. “All I could do was cry. I felt so hopeless in that moment, for what was going to be.”
Mario spent more than two years in county jail awaiting trial. In July 2010, he accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to seven years for one count of second-degree robbery and one count of participation in a criminal street gang. Gwen visited Mario at Folsom State Prison every weekend unless it was on lockdown. Four days before his 22nd birthday, she wrote him: “Two more B-Days after this one we will celebrate together. Seems that your coming home is what I have to anticipate in my life, my something to hope for. Stay up. Strong. Make this work for my sake. You are loved. Mom.”
A cellmate of Mario’s told me that he mostly kept to himself. He remembered him reading novels about street life and talking about his plans to see Big Mike in Houston when he got out. One day in 2011, after a visit from Gwen, Mario told him that his father had died. Mario sat down and rubbed his head and knees, swaying back and forth, muttering to himself.
“You know, I cry sometimes when I think about you and grandma and Big Mike,” Mario wrote in a letter to Gwen. “I ain’t cried in a long time. I believe you are my weight that keeps me grounded to Earth in this life. Without you there, there’d be no Mario.” He would later tell Gwen that while in prison he “tried everything” — every kind of drug — in order to cope.
Mario was paroled in September 2014. In the days after he came home, Gwen made his favorite mac ’n’ cheese. She took him to the bank and helped him open a checking account. She showed him how to use an ATM. She could see that prison had changed Mario. At a family barbecue celebrating his homecoming, he retreated to a bedroom, unaccustomed to being surrounded by people. Once he and Gwen went to the movies but left early — the darkness was too much. He preferred sleeping on the floor because he was used to the hard surface. “It felt like he was stuck,” she said, “while the rest of the world had moved on.” She could hear him in his room talking in two voices. Sometimes he would not recognize her. At one point, she checked him into a hospital. Later, he was prescribed medical marijuana for anxiety and paranoia.
Gwen remembers Mario asking what she thought of Stalin. “The dictator?” Gwen asked. “Yeah, that guy,” he said. Mario told her that Stalin believed a man who doesn’t contribute to society should do it a favor and off himself or be taken out. “I don’t know what your future would hold for you,” she said. “That’s only between you and your God. Everybody’s entitled to make their mistakes and be redeemed from them.” After a pause, Mario responded, “Yeah. Me, too. I believe that, too.”
According to Gwen, Mario had developed a meth habit — it’s not clear when — and a few months after his release he went into a re-entry and rehab program, living at a transitional home in San Francisco. Although he had earned his GED in prison, he took courses to earn his high school diploma. “Mario was one of the most motivated people I had,” a teacher told me. Gwen helped him learn how to drive. She took him to his driver’s test, and when Mario got out of the car and gave her a smile, it was the happiest she had seen him since prison. Mario bought his first car, a used green Camaro, and started working part time.
Shortly after Mario’s release, Gwen was laid off from the clothing company. Unable to make her mortgage, she was forced to short sell her house. For a while, she stayed with friends and in hotels south of San Francisco. Briefly, she worked the night shift as a cashier at Target. She and Mario met for lunch whenever they could. They bought hamburgers and coffee, drove to a park by the bay, and watched the airplanes take off from SFO. We’ll get through this, she told him. When Gwen got off work at midnight, she would call Mario, who would ask her to drive by his dorm and honk so he could hear through his window. He wouldn’t let her hang up the phone until she locked the door behind her.
The last time Gwen saw Mario was on Thanksgiving. They went to dinner at a cousin’s house in Sacramento — not far from the apartment she had recently moved into. Mario didn’t seem well, and Gwen thought he might have the flu. When his cousin got a pillow for him, Mario sat next to Gwen and leaned his head on her shoulder. Gwen took him home and heated him a bowl of soup before he went to bed.
At approximately 3:49 p.m. on December 2, 2015, San Francisco police received a call reporting a stabbing on the 6600 block of Third Street and that the suspect was on the loose. According to officers, they spotted Mario, who matched the suspect’s description, near Third. He was holding a knife, which police ordered him to drop. Over the next ten minutes, they fired beanbag rounds and pepper spray at him. Mario fell to his knee but got back up. At least five officers surrounded him with their guns drawn. “Just drop it!” one bystander yelled as Mario began shuffling away from the police. An officer walked ahead of Mario and blocked his path. Within seconds, police started shooting. More than 40 bullets were fired. Twenty-one struck Mario, two in the head.
On a Saturday afternoon two months after Mario’s death, Gwen filed into the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakland, thinking about how she should have dressed lighter for the sunny winter day. She took a seat in a pew near the altar, in a section reserved for “the mothers” — women like her who had also lost their children in encounters with law enforcement. Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice; Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell; Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland; Gwendolyn Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown. Here is the club no one wants to join, Gwen thought, and she was its newest member.
They were there to commemorate the birthday of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by an officer on a transit platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. Grant’s mother and uncle had started the memorial shortly after, in part to bring together families who shared the same pain. The uncle had introduced himself to Gwen at a gathering for Mario and let her know that he and his sister wanted to help in any way they could. As Gwen watched the women speak, she felt intimidated by their courage. “You feel in a place that you’re probably the weakest,” she said. “To see mothers who transition and say, ‘No, I will not just roll over and play the victim’ is very powerful.”
Gwen was beginning to learn that the world of grieving mothers was an odd place: Grief was not hers alone but something many others laid claim to. Every day was a battle to set the record straight, to protect Mario in death, not just from the police but also from those who wanted to turn him into a symbol. It was easy for the Mario she loved — endearing, exasperating, funny, smart, confused — to get lost.
In the months immediately after “Mario’s execution,” as Gwen called it, she attended as many community meetings, marches, and rallies as she could. Protesters demanded that the mayor fire the police chief and issue a public apology and that the officers who shot Mario be arrested and tried. “I think they all felt, We are Mario Woods. Mario is our son, our brother,” Phelicia Jones, a longtime community organizer who has become close to Gwen, told me. “It was very personal.”
George Gascón, the district attorney, promised to carry out a thorough investigation of the shooting. San Francisco police were already under scrutiny after his office had uncovered a series of racist and homophobic text messages exchanged among at least 14 officers, including one referring to “cross burning” and another stating that black people “should be spayed.” After Mario’s death, Mayor Ed Lee and a number of city supervisors asked for the federal government to step in. A few weeks later, the Justice Department announced that it would launch a two-year review.
When the medical examiner issued his findings, media reports homed in on the toxicology results showing that Mario’s body contained traces of meth and marijuana. The same day, city attorneys filed a response to Gwen’s civil suit claiming that the shooting was lawful and justified.
Gwen stood on the steps of City Hall one afternoon in May waiting to greet a group of hunger strikers marching against police brutality. She noticed a young man walk toward her and felt a heavy weight in her stomach. It was the man whom Mario was accused of stabbing. He explained that he had waited for the right moment to approach her. At first, Gwen turned away, but after a few minutes, she decided to hear him out. She liked to believe there are three sides to every story: “My side, your side, and the truth.”
He told her that he was sitting in his parked car when he saw Mario acting belligerent and manic — he appeared to be on drugs. She asked him why, then, he had gotten out of the car and risked a fight. He dodged her question. At the end of their conversation, Gwen realized what he had really wanted to say: He wasn’t the one who called the cops.
Whenever a stranger approached Gwen, her first response was to put up her guard. She was never sure whom to trust. Some people asked for her home address. While filling up her car at a gas station, Gwen was beckoned by a minister driving a Bentley. He offered Gwen his condolences and told her his grandson had been shot and killed by cops. Then he started explaining that the city would probably offer her $3 million, before Gwen cut him off. No amount of money would bring her son back, she told him. Gwen resented how many people were fixated on the lawsuit, assuming that she would receive a large payout from the city. The idea of accepting money for her son’s death made her feel guilty and having to prove why her son deserved to live only made her ill.
Some people told her how they admired her strength, or how they understood her pain. Each time, Gwen would correct them. No, she was not strong; no one was that strong. And no, they did not understand her pain. Because she had lost parents and siblings, too — and none of that came close to losing a child.
Then there were the mothers who seemed to envy Gwen — mothers who lost their sons in homicides. At least mothers whose sons were shot by the police got public attention, one said at a community meeting. The sentiment disturbed Gwen. “What you’re really saying,” she told me, “is that you would exchange my pain for your pain.” Some mothers talked about how their sons didn’t deserve to die, that they were angels who never broke the law. Gwen tried not to take that to mean that her son somehow deserved it.
San Francisco and Sacramento began to take on different meanings for Gwen. San Francisco was where she fought for Mario in public — a role she fervently believed in but also found exhausting. Whenever the attention became too much and she felt the city closing in, Gwen took refuge in her apartment in Sacramento. Driving between the two cities, Gwen liked to turn down the radio so it was too soft to register but loud enough to muffle her thoughts. Draped over the passenger seat was a white T-shirt with a screen-printed photo of Mario. Sometimes she talked to him as if he were sitting there. The T-shirt made the conversation feel a little more real.
In July, a few days after what would have been Mario’s 27th birthday, Gwen entered her apartment, plopped down on a black leather couch, and switched on the television. On each side of the screen, a tall cabinet encased mementos: framed family photos, Mario’s high school diploma, birthday and Mother’s Day cards he had made over the years. They began with “To My Mother” and ended with “Love, Your Son.” On a recliner, Mario’s dark gray 49ers hoodie lay as though he had just changed out of it. He’d left it there after Thanksgiving.
Gwen grasped for the pieces of Mario left behind. She called his cellphone and left messages. She knew his cell was locked up in evidence, but calling helped. She wrote him messages on Facebook. She scrolled through photos of him on her computer. The one of him as a little boy, posing as a Power Ranger. The last group photo she and her sons took, on Mother’s Day 2015, when Mario bought her flowers and made her a cup of tea. She watched the only video she had of him. Mario is standing in a courtyard, tipping his cap, his other hand giving a peace sign. He didn’t like to be on camera, and that was probably why she stopped recording after only a few seconds. Now she wished she had kept going a little longer.
In her bedroom, she taped a yellow piece of paper on the wall with a poem he had brought home from grade school:
Sometimes you get discouraged
Because I am quite small
And always leave my fingerprints on furniture and walls.
But everyday I’m growing
I’ll be grown up someday
And all those tiny handprints will surely fade away.
When Gwen needed something more tangible, she put on his sneakers or the brown leather dress shoes she bought for him to wear to church. She shuffled around the living room in them and sat on the couch with her legs up, staring at her feet. Sometimes she reached for the strand of his braid tucked inside a cream-colored photo album filled with baby photos of Mario and his brothers. On the page were the words, “The summer of ’99 was a good one.” She stroked the braid and remembered the trips the family took to Six Flags and the day she cut his hair before he went back to middle school. Her sense of time flattened. She wondered if this is what people meant when they talked about depression.
At night, Gwen sometimes found herself staring into her fridge, having forgotten to eat all day, and bingeing on cake, potato chips, or deli meat. She would bundle up in a baby-blue terry-cloth robe and put on a pair of fluffy slippers, escape to her bedroom, and flip on the TV. She didn’t care what was on, as long as it could take her mind elsewhere. She brought her laptop and phone into bed with her, to keep all of her diversions within reach. She wrote in her journal. “Nights are the worst, not enough distractions. It was our time to talk about our day, our plans. How completely and utterly they destroyed my life. Our life.” Then she braced herself for midnight.
Pain struck Gwen unexpectedly, sometimes knocking her over in the aisle of a grocery store. It was the kind of pain that made her want to rip her chest out — the same pain she felt when Mario came out of her womb, she would say. It was the worst after midnight. Gwen called these hours her negotiations with God. She grew up in the church — her dad had been a Baptist minister — and had always believed her faith would carry her family through their most trying moments. But Mario’s death had shaken that faith. Why my son? she asked God. Why couldn’t they have shown him some empathy? Was he wondering where I was before he took those bullets? How scared was he? Couldn’t I have him back, just this once?
Sometimes Mario appeared in her dreams. In one, he was standing across the street from her. She asked him where he had been; she told him that she’d been worried about him. Mario smiled and walked toward her. They hugged. She woke up trembling and gripping herself, rocking back and forth for the next half hour. A friend who was staying with her heard her crying and rushed into the room. He asked if she needed to go to the hospital, but Gwen just kept rocking. She tried to have the same dream, but it never returned.
In the fall, Gwen started applying for jobs. A week after the shooting, she had gone back to work at the mental health clinic but found herself looking at the invoice on the monitor, unable to focus, and resigned. For a while she lived on disability insurance. California offers financial assistance to families of homicide victims, but Gwen discovered that she did not qualify because the officers had not been charged. Monroe and Michael gave her money for groceries whenever they could. Sometimes friends helped her pay the bills.
Gwen missed the routine of work and needed the paycheck, but she also dreaded the question recruiters would eventually ask: Why had she left her last job? In September, she took a temporary position at a university and found it hard to concentrate. You can do it, Mom, she heard Mario say in her head, but she couldn’t bring herself to double-click the Excel file and left after two weeks. She tried again in October. This time the temporary job was with the state voter registration office doing data entry. The hours were long and breaks were short. It kept her busy, though. She liked that people didn’t ask too many questions, except one co-worker who recognized Gwen but didn’t know from where. Gwen didn’t tell her.
She signed up for a gym, exercising on the elliptical and doing crunches the way she used to do with baby Mario sitting on her legs. Monroe and Michael called and visited her more often than they used to. It was hard to be in the same room together without Mario. The first time they came over, Mario’s absence was so overwhelming that they scattered into separate rooms for the rest of the night. Lately, she and Monroe sat on the couch reminiscing about Houston, about how much they missed Mario. She noticed that Michael, who had always been the introverted one, withdrew even further. He didn’t say much, but he’d sometimes walk past her with a can of beer and pause to pat her shoulder, and she understood.
On a sweaty day in October, Gwen put on an electric-blue dress, high heels, and a trench coat. She took the freeway to San Francisco, back to the Hall of Justice where a few dozen people had gathered for a rally. Gwen walked to the top of the steps and stood in a line of grieving mothers, fathers, uncles, and cousins, among posters of children and a banner reading, Mothers on the March Against Police murders.
Five months earlier, Greg Suhr had resigned as police chief, a move spurred by two more fatal shootings. The Justice Department was one week away from releasing its report, which contained 272 recommendations to correct the San Francisco Police Department’s “deficiencies.” District Attorney Gascón had also presented findings that documented racial bias within the department. But he still hadn’t decided whether he would charge the officers who shot Mario and others, and the protesters at the rally wanted an explanation.
Holding a megaphone, Elaine Brown, the former Black Panther Party chairwoman who organized the event, spoke to the small crowd. “We’re here to make a demand,” she said. “Gascón needs to come out of that office and stop playing around and charge these police with the murder of Mario Woods.” Gwen clapped, her face stern. After the rally, some family members and activists went inside, looking for Gascón.
They squeezed into a hallway and surrounded a spokesman in a gray suit named Alex Bastian. As Gwen made her way to the front, Bastian told the crowd that his office shared their frustrations with how long the investigation had lasted. He shook hands with Gwen, who put her hand on his chest and, looking directly at him, spoke slowly: “Tell Gascón, Mario Woods’s mother said he has now placed his politics over our children’s lives.” Her breath shortened with each sentence. “If he can’t come stare me in the eye or them, tell him to look at the videos. Tell him my people are not animals. Mario wasn’t an animal. He wasn’t what you’re going to read about in that paperwork. You tell him: Be a human being.” When Gwen finished, she averted her eyes as Bastian gave her a hug. Then she walked to the end of the hall and slumped onto a bench.
The truth was that Gwen didn’t see herself as a symbol of a movement. She wasn’t even sure if holding up signs in front of government buildings would change the minds of politicians. She wasn’t sure what would be effective. On a few occasions, she had suggested filling the mailboxes of state legislators with the video of Mario being shot. Maybe then they would feel the urgency to do something.
Gwen also knew it was unlikely any of the officers who shot Mario would face jail. So this, too, she brought into her nightly negotiations with God. Did those officers lie awake at night, as ridden with guilt and pain as she was? Please, God, she prayed. Make them pay.
One afternoon while at work, Gwen got a call from Elaine Brown. She wanted to know if Gwen could come to the Hall of Justice that Friday for the weekly rally she continued to organize. Gwen said she would try, but now that she was working, it would be hard for her to attend. Brown said that other mothers were taking time out of their days, that the protesters had Mario’s best interests at heart. The implication was not lost on Gwen. She decided not to go.
As the anniversary of Mario’s death approached, Gwen felt she would rather stay in bed and let it pass without her. But on December 2, 2016, as the sun began to set behind the shops on Third Street, Gwen walked toward a neighborhood park where television cameras and a crowd holding balloons were waiting for her. She wore a coat over a black T-shirt with Mario’s face on it.
With her lawyer, John Burris, by her side, she answered questions from reporters. (A trial date has not been set for her civil suit.) She greeted friends. She spoke to people she had gotten to know over the past year — doctors, ministers, teachers, strangers who had been moved by Mario’s death. She stopped to hug one woman whose nephew had been killed by the police in 2012. Gwen shared a story about a ladybug she had found in her apartment that she had momentarily convinced herself was a sign from Mario. “I’m deep in my thought in my depression, 11:59 p.m.,” Gwen said, laughing. “Out of nowhere I hear a flutter under my lampshade. I took pictures. I could hear him say, ‘That’s too desperate, Mom.’”
The crowd walked to the site of the shooting. Seven mothers lined up next to Gwen, each holding a long white candle sticking through a paper cup. Their voices shaking, they recited their names and the names of their children.
When Gwen’s turn came, she paused. “It’s a bit overwhelming,” she said, standing on the sidewalk where she had searched for Mario one year earlier. “I need you guys to look at these mothers, because this is just a fraction of who are suffering. Something is not ever right with us. Your new norm is trying to be OK with not being OK.” She broke into tears, thanked the people who had supported her and had fought for Mario, and passed off the mic.
A few people helped Gwen bundle helium-filled balloons. She wrote on one with a black marker, Miss ya, Mar! before letting the wind carry it away. People clapped and cheered as the balloons floated into the night sky.
As the crowd thinned, Gwen walked over to a young man. “Remember that dance Mario used to do?” Gwen asked. He immediately laughed. Mario had wanted to show her the dance on one of their last nights together, but Gwen had been on the phone and asked him to show her another time. She was now desperate to see that dance. But the young man politely declined.
She had been asking about the dance for months, but no one could show it to her, either because they couldn’t recall it well enough or because it was too painful to try. For Gwen, remembering was all that was left. “Some days, I just need someone to tell me something funny about Mario,” she said. “Some days, I just need to talk about my baby.”
Related: Meet Jaeah Lee: ivoh fellow covering police violence in America | How a domestic violence survivor and a Mexican immigrant found strength in Taekwondo | After losing her veteran son to suicide, mother engages families through resources & dialogue| Exploring media’s role in the aftermath of violence and race-based trauma
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