A year after police killed her son, a mother vows to march forward

Aug 9, 2017

Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Walter Scott — these names have entered the public lexicon as attention and outrage continue to mount over officer-involved shootings. But there’s another name on that list you may not be so familiar with: Mario Woods.

In December 2015, Woods died after he was shot 21 times by San Francisco Police officers. He was 26.

San Francisco-based journalist Jaeah Lee first heard about his death when she saw a video posted to social media. She had been covering police shootings since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, but she noticed a troubling trend — namely a notable absence of media coverage about the families after the initial public outcry. So, she spent the next 17 months with Mario’s mother, Gwen Woods.

“I became very curious to find out what happened in the months that followed [a shooting], and to remind people that there is a life afterwards, and it’s not pretty,” Lee says.

What emerged was a story of one mother’s public fight and private grief. When she first saw the video of her son’s death, Gwen recognized him instantly.

“Instinctively, I knew it was him,” she says. “I know his mannerism, I know his walk. But subconsciously, I didn't want to own that.”

Gwen had raised Mario and his two brothers in the Bayview district — the same neighborhood where he was killed. As a single parent with two jobs, she struggled to keep her boys safe and on track in the face of poverty, drugs and urban violence. At 16, Mario spent a year in juvenile detention and group homes when the police found a gun in a car he was in. At 18, he was convicted of attempted robbery and sentenced to seven years at Folsom State Prison, where his mother visited every weekend.

After being paroled in September 2014, he started to use meth. He entered a rehab program in the city and started taking classes to earn his high school diploma. When he got his driver’s license, he bought a used, green Camaro and started working part time.

“I always called it for Mario, ‘your proverb years, Mario, you'll get through 'em. And then, finally, when you get some wisdom, life would just be greater,’” she says. “[He] should've been allowed to make it through the proverb years.”

The night Mario was killed, Gwen visited the scene of his death. His blood still stained the ground, and the detectives confirmed her worst fears: The police had killed her youngest son.

That afternoon, San Francisco police received a call about a stabbing. Near the location, the police spotted Mario with a knife. He matched the subject’s description. When he refused to drop the knife, officers shot at him over 40 times. The video of the shooting was shared to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook within minutes.

Gwen said that, as a black mother, she had lived with the knowledge that her son’s life was never completely safe. But she had expected the worst news to come from the streets — violence in the community — rather than the police, who she says “are supposed to serve and protect the community.”

In the months that followed, Gwen would accidentally catch glimpses of her son on the television or online, and that was difficult for her. Once, by chance, she was looking at a picture of a bullet wound to the back of his head.

“I just remember, as his mother, thinking, he just had this beautiful hair,” she said. “[The bullet] took such a plug out of his head. And I thought that’s so [inhumane].”

Instead of shooting Mario, Gwen believes the police should have apprehended her son and taken him into custody. She says the way officers dealt with Mario is indicative of the broader way police carry out interactions with black and brown men.

“Gwen was thrust into the public spotlight the moment her son was shot and killed,” says Lee, the journalist.  “And she was both grieving and trying to navigate this new space of what it meant to be a mother who suddenly lost her son, and not only lost her son, but in this very public, brutal way.”

Gwen became what Lee calls almost a “pseudocelebrity” as national attention around her son’s death began to mount. She was asked to attend protests and speak at events, which she did.

“I sensed from the beginning this sort of reluctance,” says Lee. “But, at the same time, an appreciation for the amount of attention her son was getting.”

Now, Gwen says she belongs to a “club” of mothers — a club she wishes never existed in the first place. She says she’s found strength in watching others, like the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, take a stand. They showed her that she could also stand again and that moving forward didn’t have to mean denying the struggle of such a great loss.

Still, being an activist is as foreign to her today as it was when Mario died. When people ask her about being one, she says she’s Mario’s mom first.

“[I’ve] always been Mario’s mom, even through our struggle years,” she says. “When I came out the gates, I knew I couldn’t lay down and die and grieve because I had to be his voice. Because they were gonna demonize him.”

She says black mothers who have lost their children in similar ways also have to defend their children.

“I think we all know that we know them better than the world,” she said. “We have to run out the gate fighting, we can’t even begin to grieve.”

Now, she’s fighting for change within the San Francisco Police Department and in other departments around the country. If there are changes that help save a life, she sees that as a form of solace, even in the absence of justice.

“The audacity of being a black or brown mother — the justice may not be there,” she says.

Once, she heard Michael Brown’s mother say that she’d like to look the police officer, who shot her son, in the eye. And Woods says she wants that, too.

"I’d say, 'Just know what you’ve done to my world. I’ve done a lot to survive. To make life work. And one of the reasons that I would get up in the morning — you just took it away from me; just obliviated it,'" she says.

A version of this story originally ran on The Takeaway. 


From The Takeaway ©2017 PRI and WNYC