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‘Mourning into a Movement’: Family Members of George Floyd, Eric Garner Discuss Grief and Activism at IOP Forum

Gwen Carr, center, the mother of Eric Garner, and Selwyn Jones, the uncle of George Floyd speak at an IOP forum moderated by Sandra Susan Smith.
Gwen Carr, center, the mother of Eric Garner, and Selwyn Jones, the uncle of George Floyd speak at an IOP forum moderated by Sandra Susan Smith. By Sachi Laumas
By William G. Sykes and Kenith W. Taukolo, Contributing Writers

Family members of George Floyd and Eric Garner, who were killed by police, spoke about grief, loss, and activism at a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics event on Thursday evening.

Moderated by Sandra S. Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Harvard Kennedy School, the discussion marked the first time that Floyd’s uncle Selwyn Jones and Garner’s mother Gwen Carr spoke at Harvard.

Carr, who used to work as a train operator in New York City, has been a civil rights activist since her son was killed by New York Police Department officers in 2014. Notably, she helped to pass the New York Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act in 2020 and appeared in a video with U.S. President Joe Biden at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

After the police killing of his nephew, Jones co-founded a charity dedicated to empowering marginalized communities and began speaking at events across the country.

Smith opened the event by inviting Jones and Carr to share personal stories in remembrance of the two men.

“He just loved people,” Carr said of Garner. “He loved life.”

“I just wanna keep his name alive,” Carr added. “I want the world to know who my son was and that he wasn’t just a news story.”

Recalling his relationship with Floyd, Jones said, “Every time I saw him, it was a beautiful smile and him being jolly and calling me ‘Unc’ and wanting to wrestle.”

The discussion then shifted to how Carr and Jones have been affected by the deaths of their loved ones.

“I’ve been angry for a long time,” Jones said. “I’ve been angry because of one simple reason: because of the color of our skin and how we get treated.”

The day of his nephew’s death changed “the whole world,” he said. “Police brutality is a way of life.”

Carr said that when she learned about her son’s death, “I just lost my mind.”

“That fateful day just put me in a dark place, and I just wanted to go to sleep and just don’t wake up until this terrible nightmare was over,” she added.

Despite her grief, Carr said, she was determined to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

“What I decided to do is to turn my mourning into a movement and turn my sorrow into a strategy,” Carr said. “Let’s try not to let this tragedy happen to another person.”

Carr called for people to join her in working to ensure the safety of their loved ones.

“We all need to get together. We all need one another,” Carr said. “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, for our families.”

The forum concluded with Carr and Jones describing their work as criminal justice activists. Jones emphasized the importance of open dialogue in fighting racism.

“It’ll only change through communication and empathy and passion for the next person,” he said. “We only come here for a little bit — so why not make this world a better place?”

Carr also spoke about the criticisms she has faced in her activism.

“Sometimes they tell me that the conversations that I have around the nation is making people uncomfortable,” she said. “But I say, ‘America has made me uncomfortable.’”

“I want our children, I want us to be safe when we walk out these doors,” she added.

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