(NEW YORK) — Families of Black men killed by police or gun violence have come together to brainstorm how to turn their “grief into action” to prevent continued instances of police violence.
The conversation comes as the country awaits a decision from a grand jury on the indictment of officers in the death of Jayland Walker, who was shot by police following a 2022 attempted traffic stop.
The panel, held by civil rights organization National Action Network on Wednesday in Manhattan, included family members of Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tyre Nichols, Amir Locke and Botham Jean.
Garner, Locke, Floyd and Nichols were killed in incidents with police.
Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a man who followed Martin for believing Martin was suspicious. He was acquitted on all charges connected to Martin’s death. Arbery was followed by three men and fatally shot by one of them while out for a jog because the men believed he was responsible for trespassing.
Together, the families talked about their collective efforts to keep the memory of their deceased loved ones alive – in some ways, through the implementation of police reform.
On Tuesday, the evening before the panel, Memphis passed an ordinance called the “Driving Equality Act in Honor of Tyre Nichols” that would ban traffic stops for secondary violations like overdue registration or broken lights.
Nichols died in January following a violent traffic stop captured in body camera footage, which shows officers striking Nichols repeatedly. Five officers have been charged so far in connection with his death.
“He was on his way home from watching the sunsets. He liked to go to a park and watch the sunsets as much as possible,” said Row Vaughn, mother of Nichols, through tears.
She continued, “He was stopped. He was beaten. Less than 800 feet from my home … I didn’t watch the video, but I could hear him calling my name.”
She applauded Memphis for the move, but says there is much more to be done.
“We are going to continue to fight so that this doesn’t happen to another Tyre,” said Vaughn. “There’s just too many of our Black men being killed for nothing. I’m not understanding why Black men can’t even go home.”
Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, said the pain over her son’s 2014 death by police in New York City lingers on. She reminds other families facing similar tragedies that they’re “all fighting for the same thing, going down the same road.”
“I remember when this horrible incident happened to my son – I didn’t know what I would do. I was in a dark place at that time. But I decided to turn my mourning into action,” Carr said.
In 2020, several years after Garner’s death, she helped to pass the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalizes the harmful use of a chokehold by a police officer.
“You’re going to knock on doors that are not going to open, but sometimes you have to kick the door in,” said Carr.
She also helped build the E.R.I.C. Initiative Foundation, which offers scholarships, free meals, toy giveaways and retreats in an effort to connect and uplift those affected by police brutality.
Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, also has been fighting for legislative change since her son’s death.
Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Georgia, when three men followed him while he was jogging in their neighborhood and one of the men fatally shot him.
Arbery’s death and the nationwide outcry that followed led to the repealing of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and the enactment of hate crime laws that criminalize acts motivated by someone’s identity.
“They repealed the citizens’ arrest laws, so white people cannot get in their trucks and chase down a Black boy,” said Cooper Jones.
She said her son’s death made her redefine who she was “as a woman.”
“Wanda, are you just going to sit down or are you going to implement more changes?” she said she asked herself. “Ahmaud is gone, but it is very important that his legacy lives forever.”
Though the evening applauded the wins so far from victims and their families, others said there’s a long way to go in addressing the policing issues that lead to the deaths of their children.
Amir Locke’s father, Andre Locke, is working on federal legislation that would end the use of no-knock warrants, which allow officers to enter a home without announcing their arrival. Locke was fatally shot by police who were executing a no-knock warrant.
The passage of the George Floyd Policing Act also has been an ongoing battle for police reform advocates. The legislation would improve accountability for police misconduct, restrict certain harmful policing practices, and enhance transparency and data collection.
“I cannot explain the pain,” said one of George Floyd’s brothers. “We’ve been fighting since 2020 – it is 2023. Times are changing.”
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