Remember Eric Garner? George Floyd?

April 24, 2024


By Liz Mineo | Harvard Staff Writer
April 24, 2024

It has been nearly 10 years since Eric Garner died after a New York police officer locked him in a prohibited chokehold, and his last words — "I can't breathe" — became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. And it has been almost four years since George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt into his neck during an arrest, sparking a wave of protest against police brutality across the nation.

But for Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, and Selwyn Jones, Floyd's uncle, the grief over the deaths of their loved ones remains fresh. The two sat down last Thursday evening with Sandra Susan Smith, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, to talk about how they have channeled their pain into activism — and to explain why they still have great optimism even though some of the energy that powered the movement has waned.

"That fateful day put me in a dark place, and I just wanted to go to sleep and don't wake up until this terrible nightmare was over," said Carr, recalling July 17, 2014, the day her son was killed. "But it was never over … I had to talk to myself … I asked myself, 'What are you going to do?' What I decided to do was to turn my mourning into a movement and turn my sorrow into a strategy. I was going to go out, and I was going to try to change laws and talk to people to try not to let this tragedy happen to another person."

Carr, a longtime train operator with the New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority, has done that. She started an organization to help families that have been victims of police brutality, and thanks to her advocacy, in June 2020, the New York State Assembly passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which makes it a crime for a police officer to use a chokehold.

Jones also recalled the day, May 25, 2020, when his life changed. "That day … everybody's eyes were open to police brutality, to systemic racism, to hatred," said Jones, who co-founded a nonprofit in honor of his nephew two years ago. "The only thing we can do to make this thing better is to sit and have these conversations so we can prevent those things from happening …"

Killings of Black people in fatal encounters with the police have continued. Smith, who is also director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, cited numbers from a Washington Post article that found that since Garner's murder, police have shot and killed nearly 10,000 people, 27 percent of whom are Black.

Carr and Jones acknowledge the outcry that followed Garner and Floyd's killings has dwindled over time, but they insist the struggle must go on.

Jones urged people to remember his nephew's brutal death to keep the outrage alive to work for social change. "If you can remember that moment when all of you saw my nephew lying on the ground, crying, screaming, and begging," said Jones. "Can you remember how that felt and how wrong it was?"

Carr said the only way to keep the social movement alive is to be committed to having difficult conversations about race and inequality regularly.

"It seems that they were in a moment, not a movement," Carr said of those who either lost heart or simply dropped out. "When you are in a movement, you keep moving toward the goal that you're trying to accomplish. You can't let it die down … What it's all about is continuation … We go from demonstration to legislation. This is how we make a change."

It is an uphill battle, said Carr, but one that is necessary. When people tell her the conversations about race she holds across the nation make some people uncomfortable, she responds, "America has made me uncomfortable."

She laments that Black families worry about their children's safety and have to advise their children how to react if they are stopped by the police, something that white families don’t have to do.

"No matter what color you are, no matter what race you are, no matter what religion you are, we are all human, and we all want safety for our children and for our families," said Carr. "Where you live shouldn't determine if you live. We just got to do better as a nation."

When asked whether social activism has been a way to cope with their grief, both Carr and Jones said that their work has helped them channel their outrage and pain, but they both recognized the difficulties of grieving in the public eye. "Your life is not your life anymore," said Carr. "I will be on this battlefield for the rest of my life."

Carr and Jones shared family memories of Garner and Floyd as they grew up and raised families in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, respectively. Garner was a "gentle giant," said Carr; he would bring home classmates who were picked on and was very protective of his younger sister. He loved Christmas and the New York Giants, and one of his favorite phrases was "share the love."

"I just want to keep his name alive," she said. "I want the world to know who my son was and that he wasn't just a news story."

Jones said he remembers his nephew as a big jock, a lover of basketball, and someone who always wanted to make people laugh. "Every time I saw him, he had a beautiful smile," he said.

When a student in the audience asked the activists what they needed from Black students and from the public to keep the movement for social and racial justice alive, both Jones and Carr asked them to join the struggle.

"We need you," said Jones. "You're going to make this world a better place. You are the changemakers."

"We are entrusting the future to the youth," said Carr. "We hope that they do better than what we did … We are entrusting you to become lawmakers, to become judges, to become all kinds of politicians, and to make the right decisions and think with your heart as much as you do with your head."

Photo by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

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