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'You're Gonna Cry, Mother'

Mario Woods is laid to rest as a community roils.

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Gwen Woods is consoled by other mothers who have lost a child.


Every funeral is a contradiction—a celebration of life and a lamentation of death—but Mario Woods’s memorial, held this morning at the Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in the Bayview, was more so. There was, unsurprisingly, no shortage of anger voiced during the two-and-a-half hour ceremony. But there were moments of levity, too, and high-energy preaching and ecstatic organ-playing and men and women leaping out of their seats and shouting praises of God and assurances that Mario Keith Woods is in a better place today and that tomorrow, perhaps, the Lord Almighty will provide clarity for those whom he left behind.

Woods’s lily-draped casket sat between two pictures of him: As a grinning baby and as the young man he would become before being cut down in a barrage of gunfire from San Francisco police at the tender age of 26 on December 2. Mourners somberly filed into the spartan main room of the church, a low-slung house of God surrounded by a wrought-iron fence on a bustling Bayview intersection.

“You’re gonna cry, mother,” said the Rev. Stephanie Burch, addressing Woods’s mother, Gwen, from the lectern. “But trust He will hold you. He will bring you through.” Burch knows of what she speaks; she, too, lost a child. “It doesn’t get easy,” she said. “But put God ahead of you and you will work everything out. You have been initiated into a society of mothers that no one wants to touch.” That society goes back a long way, Burch continued, back to the mother who lost her son, “so we all have a right to everlasting life.”

In life, Mario Woods was a man. But in death, he has also inarguably become a symbol. And that transformation was all too clear to those present at the church today; Burch was only the first speaker who likened Woods to Christ, another man whose life’s purpose was to die. Woods’s death, the crowd was told, would spark a movement. He had transcended mere mortality and become an idea—which is something you cannot kill.

“The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said to me that Mario Woods died the death of a martyr,” Bayview Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad said, sparking a standing ovation. “Some people live to die for the greater good as a sign of what all of us must be willing to do if we believe in God. So, Brother Mario’s death is not a death at all.” Looking directly at Gwen Woods, he continued: “Your blessed womb produced a child of destiny.” 

Mario Woods, we were told, loved Houston rappers (he spent some of his childhood in Texas) and Japanese cartoons. He was “the quietest, most deepest-voiced short dude I ever met in my life,” said a speaker who spent time with Woods at Walden House. “I don’t even smoke cigarettes but I’d buy them just so Mario would ask me for a cigarette.” Woods had spent time in prison but, childhood friends say, he was done with all that. He had joined a church. He had, as his mother said in the past and again today, “redeemed himself.”

This was the most palpable of many contradictions on display today. Woods was beloved friend and a man relatives said was intent on bettering himself. But he was also, we were told, a threat: It wasn’t that he did something to threaten the officers. It’s the mere fact that, as a black man, “he stood up and got off his knees,” bellowed Muhammad to a cheering crowd. “That’s that Nat Turner Spirit. That’s that Kunta Kinte spirit. I’m not Toby. I am not a slave. You’re not going to make me bow down.”

The Woods family’s attorneys, who were present today, did not wallow into such blood-and-thunder rhetoric. They were more concerned with Woods the man, and the system that produced a wall of officers who blasted him with more than 20 shots as he limped along a Bayview street. Woods is accused of stabbing another man; that’s why officers were scouring the area in the first place. But lawyer DeWitt Lacy said the SFPD hasn’t proved to him a stabbing even took place, let alone that Woods was culpable.

It was, in the end, another tough day for Gwen Woods, who found out her son had been shot via Facebook and has since watched his death become a viral video. She received emotional greetings from the half a dozen or more mothers in attendance who’d also buried a child. Her chance to speak came only after a very long program of singing, dancing, sermonizing, and at least one overlong speaker who was shooed away by a pastor evoking the Almighty.

At last handed the microphone, Gwen Woods asked the media to “be a little bit compassionate” about describing her son. “My child was a good soul. He had a lot of heartbreaks. I loved that kid. I loved him. And I’m gonna be his voice.” But she is not without regrets. “I shouldn’t have come back here,” she told the mourners. “I should not have come back to this city.”

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