Abolition for the People

Losing My Son to Police Violence: A Conversation With Gwendolyn Woods

In a candid conversation with Kiese Laymon, Mario Woods’ mother reflects on his life — and the violence that robbed him of his future

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

It’s morning. I just got off the phone with Gwen Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, who was executed by San Francisco police officers on December 2, 2015. I am terrified. I am confused. I am absolutely thankful. I am more prepared to fight. Before our conversation, I read everything I could about both her and Mario. I watched, on silent, as Gwen Woods’ child walked away from officers before being filled with 21 bullets. I heard but didn’t fully understand when Colin Kaepernick told me, “Mario is why I did what I did. His mother, Mama Woods, is why I do what I do. You should talk to her. She is not a symbol, brother. You’ll see.”

I was still wondering why Gwen Woods refused to hang up first at the end of our conversation when she texted me two photos. In the first picture, Mario is wearing what we in Jackson, Mississippi, call a “sweater hat” and a white T-shirt beneath a dark gray San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt. In the second picture, Mario is a baby looking directly into the camera. He’s cloaked in a humongous red San Francisco 49ers jacket, the cobalt blue of his shirt popping out of the top. At the bottom right of the picture are the words “Mar-Man.” “Just had to share Mar as a baby in his 49ers garb and at his first game at Candlestick Park,” Ms. Woods wrote in a text between the two. “It was the first night Colin started as quarterback. He didn’t know Mar. But Mar felt he knew him as the quarterback. The irony, right? Thank you for our conversation, K. Even more than my child leaving me, I just never wanted to leave my child out there. ”

I think I understand why Gwen Woods insisted I hang up first.

By Gwen Woods as told to Kiese Laymon

Do you mind if I call you “K”? I hate to mess up people’s names.

When the lawyer said he couldn’t win Mario’s case, even with a video, I hurt in a way I never wish on anyone except the police who executed my son. That hurt didn’t stop with some settlement. After what they did to my child’s body, I had my Judas moment. I felt like I sold my child for 40 pieces of silver. Most of that money went to lawyers. I felt like I betrayed and abandoned my son.

I use the word “execute” because that’s what they do. They execute. They annihilate. Look at the video. If they didn’t annihilate my son, what did they do? If that doesn’t look like an execution, tell me what it looks like? They come up with jargon for “soft targets.” They told me my son was a “victim of policy.”

Of course, I thought about being quiet. But when the lawyers failed to speak for us in a court of law, I said to myself, “Fine, I’ll take it from here.”

Then Colin came.

If they didn’t annihilate my son, what did they do? If that doesn’t look like an execution, tell me what it looks like?

My first meeting with Colin was four years in the making. Mario was executed blocks from old Candlestick Park. So, three years later, when someone asked Colin what made him take that knee. He said Mario Woods.

That’s my son.

Honestly, K, it brought life back to me. It brought Mario back from the ashes. I birthed my baby. I loved my baby. They shot so many holes in my baby’s body. And Colin says my baby is what gave him the strength to stand up for us and kneel. Even though my son’s body is gone, I still talk to him. “Mario, someone as great as Colin Kaepernick got your back,” I tell him. “He says you gave him life.”

We have to start making examples of people of power and control. Nothing will change until we start dismantling that Officers Bill of Rights. There has to be a zero tolerance policy. No pension if you kill people who could not kill you. Right now, you can execute our children, or us, and even on the rare occasion you lose your job, you still keep your pension.

We have to dismantle that Officers Bill of Rights.

My son was executed by an ideal. That ideal says that he, and people like him, are not redeemable. Police kill people that they believe don’t deserve to live. You read what happened to his body. They pepper-sprayed my child. I know he couldn’t think. Soaking wet, my child was 5-foot-4, 144 pounds.

Every parent wants their child to be seen. How can you value what you don’t see? I don’t think these juries see our children. Let it be juries of our peers. When I’m on jury duty, my job will only pay for two weeks because I’m not a city employee. What’s the race and neighborhood demographics of most city employees? Most of them aren’t our peers. Let it be people from our community, our peers. Compensate us fairly on those juries.

These police who kill our children never admit to regrets. I do. I wonder sometimes if I should have short-sold my mother’s house faster and kept Mar out of prison. My father was in the Navy and bought the home when he returned from the military. Maybe that’s a risk I should have taken. Maybe we would have had more resources if I did that. When we came back to California, my mother had terminal cancer. Mario was impacted by all that. I had a second job working security on the weekend.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

As a Black mother, it’s understandable that we go into grieving mode. You feel like you left your child out there to be executed by police and the schools and the politicians and the poverty and the addiction. But we also have to go into fighting mode. We have to fight for ourselves and our children and our communities. None of our children are one-dimensional. None of us are one-dimensional.

Mario was a kid who was always trying to help other people eat whether he had enough or not. I want to say it was me, but he was like that when he was born. They would never see this. When they executed Mario, they saw him as a nobody. They didn’t love him. They didn’t protect him. They executed him. It’s times I didn’t know who to be mad at. My mother? My estranged husband? Ultimately, some days, I’m just most mad at myself. It’s schizophrenic at times.

But I am not apologizing.

I’m tired of teachable moments. I’ve been through that on my job my whole life. In order to talk about “Black-on-Black crime,” we have to talk about the government as much as we talk about Black people. Folks want to talk about Black on Black crime. Let’s talk about it. And let’s talk about how we are overrepresented in prisons. Let’s talk about how their children never go to prison for what they do to us. Let’s talk about how they’re just like Trump, always deflecting. If our children mess up, and sometimes even if they don’t, they go to prison. If their children mess up in ways our children can’t even imagine, they become presidents of companies, politicians, and president of the United States.

So much trauma is impacted on us. We know about Oliver North and Iran-Contra. We know, throughout history, how the guns got into our community. We know how the crack came in. The government helped inflict this on us. It’s like they blame us and blame our children for what they started. When I look at a young person being a knucklehead, I want to know the story behind him. We have to want to know our children’s stories.

Education is crucial. But if you took my education and made me feel less than, you don’t want me to love myself. You don’t. You want me to love who you say you are. But I can’t trust anything you say because you say I’m a nobody. You say my child is nobody. You take what made me from me and tell me all that made me ain’t worth a damn in schools.

I hope that makes sense.

I’m over being apologetic about the state’s failures. They want us to apologize for how we raised our children. I’m supposed to apologize to the people who killed my child? I’m going to apologize to the people who watched my child die? I am not apologizing. If my child has to go to prison, someone else’s son should have to go to prison for killing my child. And they should be in general-population like my child. That’s how I feel sometimes. I know prisons are bad for everyone. I know that, K, but sometimes I feel like if I have to be up all night depressed, I hope those officers and their families are in the same situation I’m in.

We aren’t asking for anything that wasn’t taken from us. When I think of my mom’s cancer, I think of environmental racism. She didn’t ask for that. How do you repair what you took from her and her family? That is what reparation means. When you take something from people, whether it’s health, money, security, their children, whatever, you have to repair that. But here’s the truth, K. I don’t know how you fully repair the hearts of mothers who watch their children be executed by people paid to protect and to serve, and then nothing happens to the executioners.

How do you repair that, K? These folks, they don’t even try! That’s the thing.

I’ve been reading a lot about alternatives to prison. I read where, in some cultures, historically, if you killed someone, you would be made to take that dead body and you’d have to carry that body around for days until you got that stench into your pores. The concept is something to think about.

I remember being a person with no hate. After seeing how they treated my child’s body, I’m not going to say I don’t hate. What would you feel if you saw your child with no gun executed by five officers, and none of the executioners were held responsible?

I just miss my child, K.

I birthed my baby. I loved my baby. They shot so many holes in my baby’s body.

I remember so many things I know Mario doesn’t remember. I wish I could remind him of who he was. When we were living in Houston, I met Mario one day when he got out of school. I met him at the corner. Him and my neighbor, little Johnny, were coming up the street, and he had a big black thing in his hands.

The closer he gets, I’m like, “Mario, is that a dead crow?”

Mario is telling me to save it. I said, “if you don’t put that thing down…” Mario said, “When I grow up, you can’t come to my house because I’m gonna have snakes.” My son was so funny. He cared so much for living things that were hurt.

When he was in prison and struggling, I’d say, “The time is doing you today, Mar.” I have a picture of us all at the zoo. I pull on that memory a lot. Mar was so rambunctious. I got him one of those Teddy Ruxpins when he was little. When it was time for him to do his homework, I put it way up on his bookshelf. One day, Mar climbed up there and got that Teddy Ruxpin. Whole bookshelf fell over on my child.

I got him and his brother a new winter coat to share. Mar gave it to his friend because his friend was colder than him and his brother. He was colder because he didn’t have a coat at all.

None of who my child was mattered to those police, that jury, these politicians.

We have to make them uncomfortable. We have to make them uncomfortable. The police are too comfortable. Trump is way too comfortable. These politicians are too comfortable. Nancy Pelosi can sit up there with kente cloth but not say a word about Idris, Kenneth, my child, Jessica Williams, all the blood on San Francisco’s hands. Now she’s on TV talking about police reform, but not talking about her role in what she thinks needs to be reformed.

How?

You saw my child shot 21 times after posing no threat to all those police, and you don’t understand why Colin took a knee. I have this great pain of losing my child. I have this great man that I consider my child now, too.

“Woman behold thy son,” scripture says. I think of Colin in that context. “Mother behold thy son.”

I love that young man, K. Not just for everything he meant to Mario. I love him because of his heart, his integrity. Colin’s integrity outweighs everything popular. When you see that integrity, you must stand up. You must fight. Colin Kaepernick’s story is the story of what happens to integrity and love of Black folks in the United States. This country hates integrity. I’m gonna be honest. They don’t hate Colin. They think they do. They hate integrity. He told them they are responsible for a history of brutality. Telling the truth should not be a risk. But it is for us.

Colin risked it all for our children.

I miss my child every minute of every day. I am thankful that his life, no matter how short, inspired change. If he was alive, he’d say we have to do everything to keep Colin Kaepernick safe, Mama, not because he was his favorite quarterback, but because he loves us enough to fight. We can’t abandon our children or the folks who fight for our children. I wish Mario was here to see what he helped continue.

Thank you for talking to me, K. Thank you so much.

You hang up first.

Kiese Laymon is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Heavy. He is also the author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America.