“They shot him like an animal!!” Gwendolyn Woods’ screamed as protestors surrounded
the Bayview Police Station in San Francisco. Her son, Mario Woods, was shot 25 times by SFPD officers on December 2, 2015, just a few miles from where she stood now. Mario was 26 years old when he died, and his death by the police was all caught on cell phone video which went viral on social media. Mrs. Woods explained, “I opened Facebook and saw my son getting murdered, they had him against a wall, execution style. [The police] judged and executed.”
I spent a lot of time during 2016 with Mrs. Woods and Mario’s friends and family.
Mrs. Woods showed me family photo albums, Mario’s school yearbooks and home
videos. Mario was small in stature, big brown eyes and full of energy, with the kind of energy that did not need to be charged, it was the type the universe entrusted in him. He grew up in a loving family. His favorite movie was Steve Spielberg’s Gremlins, and he watched Power Rangers every day after school. Mario had a tough life growing up after his father’s unexpected death by cardiac arrest. He found making documentaries as a way for him to maneuver through life. His friends described as someone everyone wanted to be friends with, because when he asked you about your day, he was sincere with his emotions and words.
Mario’s violent death sent a shockwave in the black community. He was a young black
man, clearly facing the wall and completely helpless when he was shot by several police officers. His death sparked a movement. Collations were formed, and allies came together from Black Seed (Black Queer movement), Black Lives Matter, LGTBQ, Interfaith Communities and many more. Mario’s death gave people agency and the space to voice their concerns and fears. The coalitions worked together to clear Mario’s name that they thought the media and SFPD sought to stain. They closed down the Bay Bridge, blocking traffic with their bodies, protested and marched during Super Bowl 50 events and Bayview Police Station, as well as shutting down the Oakland Airport.
But Mrs. Woods’ efforts were the most poignant. I found Ms. Woods visiting his grave almost daily. When I asked her why, she said, “I will never cook him a meal, never talk to him again. All I can do for him is prune the grass that shelters his grave. This is all I have left, grass above a gravesite”
When I was working on the story, I knew that this was not going to be another “statistics” story. I wanted it to be a story about Mario’s legacy and the people who loved him, believed in his innocence and mourn his tragic ending. The project looks at space that is created through acts of violence. The photos featured in the extended photo essay show the legacy and the transition of Mario. What was once a plain, everyday sidewalk became his final resting place, to be memorialized by his family and friends for years to come. The spaces created by those who die in violence situations are often times spaces that have no real meaning; however, through violence, these spaces are elevated.
the project draws on the ideas and teachings of Frantz Fanon who wrote in The Fact of Blackness that cognitive dissonance forces people to hold on to core beliefs. Even if these core beliefs are proved to be wrong. With police violence against blacks on the rise, society cannot help but realize that something is very wrong. Fanon also says that blackness is often associated with being “bad”; and the black man is viewed as a body—mindless, violent, sexual and animalistic.