It’s been one year since police in Alameda, California, killed Mario Gonzalez — and his family has little hope left for justice.
Earlier this month, the district attorney announced there would be no criminal charges for the officers involved.
“It’s been a very hard year. It’s like a nightmare,” Mario’s mother, Edith Arenales, said in Spanish.
Mario’s son, who is 5 years old and named after his father, often asks her where his dad is, when he’s coming home. Edith doesn’t know what to tell him nor her other son, Efrain, Mario’s 23-year-old brother, who is autistic and whom he cared for.
“How do I explain that he’s not coming back. That they killed him?” she said. “It’s something they’ll never understand.”
“I miss him because he was my flesh,” she added. “We took coffees together. We cooked. We were good friends. He was my son, but we were really good friends.”
On April 19, 2021, police in the Bay Area city knelt on Mario’s back for nearly four minutes, until he died. Body camera footage, released later that month after an outcry from the family, showed officers approach Mario, alone in a park with bottles of alcohol, after a neighbor called about someone intoxicated. Mario calmly spoke with the officers for nearly nine minutes. Then the cops put Mario’s hands behind his back and pinned him facedown. At least two officers knelt on him until he stopped breathing and lost his pulse.
In a December report, the county coroner’s office declared Mario’s death a homicide.
The three officers involved — officers Eric McKinley, James Fisher and Cameron Leahy — remain on paid administrative leave until the city completes its own investigation, per the Alameda Police Department.
The family’s attorney, Adante Pointer, said he’s concerned the police officers will simply be put back on the job.
“Mario was a beautiful person, very respectful, full of love,” his mother said, adding that he loved watching movies and cooking for his son and his brother — “he was a chef.”
“He didn’t deserve to die.”
It’s been an extremely hard year for the family.
The DA’s report saying the cops involved would not be charged and claiming Mario was “resisting” came out just weeks before the anniversary of Mario’s death. It felt like “gaslighting,” Mario’s 22-year-old brother, Gerardo “Jerry” Gonzalez, said in a news release.
“It is absurd to say that my son died of anything but the men who murdered him,” their mother echoed. “He was alive and breathing when they found him. You can’t imagine how painful it is to lose your son and then to have him blamed for his own murder.”
Jerry said his family wants a “stricter accountability process for cops that kill people,” as well as policy changes to have alternatives to cops for responding to wellness calls and mental health crises.
The family has filed two federal civil rights lawsuits — one on behalf of Mario’s mother, for the loss of her son, and another on behalf of his son Mario, for the loss of his father.
“How do I explain that he’s not coming back. That they killed him?”
– Mario’s mother Edith
Each holiday — birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s — is a reminder for Edith of when they all used to be together.
“There’s an emptiness in my home,” Edith said. “It’s a very heavy rock on my back. Something so horrible. A loneliness. Unexplainable questions.”
After Mario lost his job at a pizza place in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he began to care for his autistic brother full time. While their mother was at work at a gas station coffee shop, Mario would bathe Efrain, make him food, put gel in his hair. He’d pick up his son from school and make them both meals — they liked eggs and homemade fries.
By the time Edith got home from work, the food was ready, Efrain was bathed, the house was cleaned, they’d have music on.
“It felt so good. I felt so supported,” Edith said. But now that Mario isn’t there, “I’m doing it all.”
These days, she gets out of work and has to rush home to care for Efrain. She sometimes picks up her grandson Mario, who lives at his mother’s, from kindergarten. She calls him “mi baby Mario.” He calls her “Mami Edith.” Little Mario has a bed at her place and his toys. She makes his favorite food. He looks a lot like his dad.
“I try to fill a part of the void,” Edith said. “I’ll never be able to. But I’m trying.”
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