On a Saturday in July, a day before the second anniversary of her son Eric Garner’s death, Gwen Carr was sweating under the heat of the noonday sun as she led a march that wound its way through Downtown Brooklyn before ending at Prospect Park. Two years after her son was held down in a chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo on a sidewalk in Staten Island, screaming out “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died, she’s still searching for some measure of justice.
Surrounding her was a group of women who had traveled from as far as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Oakland to be there with her, all mothers whose own sons had been killed by police officers — Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who had his life cut short on New Year’s Day in 2009 by a bullet to his back; Constance Malcolm, whose 18-year-old son Ramarley Graham was shot and killed in the bathroom of their Bronx apartment in 2012; Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 had 41 bullets fired at him as he reached for his wallet; Samaria Rice, whose 12-year-old son Tamir was gunned down as he played with a toy gun in a Cleveland park; and Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who, like Garner, died as he was choked by an NYPD officer, asphyxiating to death on the street outside his childhood home in the Bronx on a winter night in 1994.
Against the backdrop of the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, which have rekindled calls for reform and compelled tens of thousands around the country to pour into the streets demanding justice, these women came together to ask that their dead loved ones not be forgotten.
Decked out in buttons listing the dates of their sons’ births and deaths as their “sunrise” and “sunset,” the sons who have become the suns around which their lives now revolve, the mothers chanted as they marched, using “I can’t breathe!” as their rallying cry.
“We’re not going to go away,” said Constance Malcolm, the lilt of her native Jamaica in her voice. Four years after Ramarley’s death, Richard Haste, the officer who killed her son, remains on the force, as does Daniel Pantaleo. “There’s no accountability. Until we have accountability, we’re going to keep having marches and going to funerals.”
Next to Constance, 70-year-old Iris Baez walked slowly, the solidity of her body reminiscent of a prizefighter past their prime, and held an umbrella high to shield herself from the sun. Despite her arthritis and a bad knee, she felt she had to come out on this day.
“That’s how we survive, by giving support and being there.”
“That’s how we survive, by giving support and being there,” said Iris. Time has carved lines from her nose down to her chin, twin canyons that frame a mouth that’s often pursed, as if she’s just swallowed something unappetizing. “I have the same pain that they have. I have the same anger they have.”
In the 1990s, Iris was one of the most well-known faces of that decade’s anti–police brutality movement. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has known and worked with Iris for decades, still describes her as the “ultimate activist mother.”
After her son Anthony’s death, Iris founded Parents Against Police Brutality with Margarita Rosario, another Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx whose son and nephew were gunned down by NYPD officers three weeks after Iris’s son was killed. Parents Against Police Brutality would become an important leader of the city’s dynamic grassroots police reform movement, and a group that, in the words of Andrew Hsiao, a journalist who wrote for the Village Voice in the late 1990s, kept “direct-action politics alive while helping to make police brutality one of the defining political issues of [the] time.”
More than 20 years later, the work she spearheaded has been largely forgotten by the public and the passage of time has slowed her down, but Iris Baez is continuing to organize with a group of women she simply calls “the mothers,” a group that includes Gwen Carr, Constance Malcolm, Kadiatou Diallo, and numerous others she’s searched out over the years at funerals and rallies, in courtrooms, and at their homes. Part recruiter, part therapist, part prophet, Iris tells them is that justice is possible, or at the very least, a simulacrum of justice. What they really want — for their children to be returned to them — is an impossibility, but killer cops, she tells them, can go to prison.
In New York, against huge odds, Iris and these women are leveraging their power as grieving mothers to demand political reform. Together, working closely with the city’s police reform advocates, they’ve won important victories, just last year leading a campaign that compelled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint the state’s attorney general as an independent prosecutor in cases where police officers use deadly force, the first of its kind in the nation.
Now, in the days and weeks following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, they’re mobilizing again, campaigning for the passage of the Right to Know Act — a package of bills that would require officers to, among other things, identify themselves during police encounters — and attending the wake of Delrawn Small, a Brooklyn man who was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in a road rage incident on the 4th of July, a death that has flown under the national radar.
“Something’s going to happen,” Iris predicted after attending Small’s wake and meeting with his girlfriend and his brother. “It’s a boiling pot that’s happening right now.”
Yet they’ve learned that these moments pass all too quickly. After the initial furor over yet another death calms down, after the stories of their sons’ deaths at the hands of the police become a footnote in our shared history, after the vast majority of those who march and protest trickle away — these women, welded together by circumstance, are the ones who remain, compelling us, as the poet Claudia Rankine has written, to continue not only to mourn with them, but to resist the impulse to forget the names of their children.
“In the beginning, you have a lot of people around you,” Iris said. “But after a while, it calms down, everybody goes back to usual. And that’s when you’re alone.”
Iris Baez in her Bronx home, April 26, 2016.
Kate Bubacz / BuzzFeed News
A few weeks earlier, I had gone to see Iris at her home in the Bronx, the same three-story brick building where she raised Anthony and her other children, on a side street nestled next to the bustle of Jerome Avenue.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Iris moved to New York City with her mother when she was a year old. As a young girl, she had dreamed of a glamorous career as a flight attendant, but her mother took her out of school in the sixth grade to help care for her two younger sisters, and she never went back. Instead, she married Ramon Baez and worked as a teacher’s assistant and home care aide before eventually devoting her life to her family and her church, and, after Anthony’s death, to seeking justice for her son.
In a way, he wasn’t even supposed to be there that evening in 1994 — two years earlier, the Baez family had moved to Orlando, Florida, leaving the neighborhood that Iris had witnessed with increasing alarm turn into, in her words, “a crack haven.”
But Anthony and his three brothers had decided to road-trip back to the neighborhood where they grew up, and on that night, they were tossing a football through the cold December air, the street quiet but for the gleeful shouts of the four brothers, empty of life except for Iris’s sons and a couple of police cruisers idling on the curb.
“I don’t know what happened. I just know that I wanted to find out who killed him, and whoever killed him was going to go to jail. That’s it.”
When an errant pass collided with the police car of Francis X. Livoti, an officer known to have a quick temper and a history of violence (he’d already racked up almost a dozen brutality complaints), he emerged, enraged. Livoti arrested the youngest Baez brother, 16-year-old David, slamming him against a parked car. When Anthony tried to intervene, Livoti and another officer moved to arrest him too, with Livoti’s arm wrapped in a chokehold around Anthony’s neck, squeezing his throat like a vise. By the time more officers arrived on the scene, Anthony was handcuffed on the ground, his face pressed to the concrete and his neck ringed with bruises. He was pronounced dead an hour later.
Thousands of miles away, Iris Baez was at her new home in Orlando, cooking a feast and preparing for her large family to gather for Christmas, when she got a phone call from her former church pastor telling her that something had happened to her son, and that she needed to come back to New York immediately.
“I don’t know what happened. I just know that I wanted to find out who killed him, and whoever killed him was going to go to jail. That’s it,” Iris said, reflecting on the days after Anthony died. We’re sitting in her battered blue minivan, parked in front of her house, and her eyes are fixed straight ahead, her mouth a grim line. “Somebody had to pay for the murder of my son.”
Anthony is everywhere on the block. His face, a small smile dancing around his lips, stares down at me from a time- and weather-worn mural that spans one side of the Baez home, visible through the rusted chain-link fence that separates it from the car repair lot next door.
The street itself, renamed Anthony Baez Place in 2000, is a monument to him, and I wonder if it’s painful for her to be surrounded by reminders of her dead son. “To me, it’s more ‘I’m proud of you. You’re there,’” Iris says of the street signs that bear his name. “My son was going to be big. He could’ve been the president! So it’s fitting for him, a street named after him.”
Her house, which the family bought in 1968, is falling apart. The roof needs to be patched up, she’s behind on her property taxes and her water bill, and the entire building has an air of neglect. She lives with her son David as well as her 13-year-old son Erwin, whom she adopted in 2006 and who’s been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To help take care of the bills and to supplement her monthly Social Security checks, she’s resorted to raffling off copies of Every Mother’s Son, a 2004 documentary by Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson that she was featured in. “Everything needs fixing!” she says as she labors up the narrow staircase to the second floor.
A mural painted in honor of Anthony Baez on the side of his mother's home in the Bronx.
Kate Bubacz / BuzzFeed News
Yet lately, she’s put her personal life on the back burner. In May, she and a group of activists went to Cuba, on the invitation of the country’s federation of women. She then went to Miami for a retreat for mothers of gun violence victims led by Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and then it was off to Martha’s Vineyard for a weekend to take part in a series of events with an artist who has painted larger-than-life portraits of her and other mothers.
In the beginning, years ago, going to places like Martha’s Vineyard, with their wealth and privilege, unnerved her, but now she sees these trips as yet another opportunity to evangelize. “Maybe they haven’t heard the story. The main thing is to get the word out,” she said.
Iris tells me she’s tired, but she’s found the time on this day to meet with Hawa Bah, the mother of Mohamed Bah, a Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed in his Harlem apartment in 2012 after officers responded to a 911 call from Hawa that her son was acting erratically.
She’s come to Iris this morning for advice on how to pressure the Department of Justice to file charges against the officers involved in Mohamed’s death, and they’re talking strategy amid the din of the elevated subway that rumbles by every few minutes and the shrieking of two of Iris’s grandchildren, who are running from room to room playing a game of cops and robbers, one of them clasping a neon green fake gun in his hands.
Iris ignores all of this; her focus is on Hawa, who’s sitting on the worn black leather sofa in the living room. “You have to get on the DOJ, send faxes to him,” Iris counsels her, referring to Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York.
For Hawa, it’s reassuring to have Iris as a guide. “She knows more than I know. She’s been in this for 21 years,” Hawa says of Iris. “I’m just in this for four years.”
After hearing the news of Bah’s death, Iris showed up at Hawa's door, looking to bring another grieving mother into the fold.
Iris met Hawa shortly after her son Mohamed was killed. After hearing the news of Bah’s death, Iris showed up at Hawa's door, looking to bring another grieving mother into the fold. In the years since, Iris has become her second family, almost closer than her blood relatives, Hawa says. Pain is a thread that unites them.
Hawa is not the only woman Iris is counseling — the previous day, she traveled to New Jersey to meet with Cecilia Diaz, whose son Elvin was shot and killed by Hackensack police officers last May. And the day before that, she made sure to attend a vigil held by Constance Malcolm.
For many of these women, Iris is an inspiration. “This is my support. This is who I stand with. This is who stands with me,” said Gwen Carr of Iris. “Even though her case has been settled, she knows how important this fight is.” Constance, who met Iris in the courthouse on May 15, 2013, the day that Richard Haste walked away a free man, has described her in the past as the woman who keeps her moving.
Hawa has started to cry softly after looking at photos of a friend’s grandchildren on her phone. “When I see a young baby, I remember when I had Mohamed,” she says.
Iris has become used to the tears of grieving mothers over the years. She sits silently and then, after a moment, slowly pushes herself up, grabs a tissue, and wordlessly hands it to Hawa.
Iris still watches the local news every day at 4 p.m. on the television in her bedroom, keeping an eye out for stories about new victims of police shootings. That’s how she heard about Richard Gonzalez, who died while in police custody in March of this year. She went to his family's apartment in the Bronx and slipped a note under Gonzalez’s door with her phone number, and recently, his wife, Hafiza, called her to meet.
She describes her work as her calling, but it can be just as easily read as a form of therapy. “It keeps my sanity, to hear what they go through,” she said of the other women.
Sinking to her knees, Mamie Till weeps as the body of her slain son, Emmett Louis Till, arrives at Chicago Rail Station. The young man was found dead in a Mississippi creek with a bullet hole behind his ear.
The mother in pain has long been a prophetic voice — in other words, a political figure whose jeremiads help shame a nation into action.
In Argentina, the mothers of the disappeared — men and women who were kidnapped by the military dictatorship by the thousands during the period of the dirty wars in the late ’70s and early ’80s — became a powerful political force, using the tools they had at their disposal: their bodies and their outrage.
Known as “las Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” these women gathered weekly at the public square for which they were named to demand answers about the disappearance of their loved ones, their heads draped with white scarves and their hands clutching photographs of their sons and daughters. “Motherhood,” as Rebecca Solnit has written of these women, “was an emotional and biological tie that the generals then in charge of the country could not portray as merely left-wing or as criminal.”
In the United States, Mothers Against Drunk Driving once made drunk driving one of the leading issues of its time, by relying heavily on the storytelling of the women who made up its core — Candy Lightner repeating how her 13-year-old daughter’s body was thrown 125 feet after being hit by an inebriated man's car; Cindi Lamb sharing how her 5-month-old baby girl was paralyzed from the neck down, her spine crushed, after their vehicle collided with a swerving car.
“We’ve had a history in this country of family members and mothers being able to help Americans understand issues better.”