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“We can’t let things settle down”: George Floyd and Eric Garner’s families call for racial justice at the DNC

Floyd’s brother and Garner’s mother called America to action on the first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Rodney Floyd (L) and Philonise Floyd (R), brothers of George Floyd, speak on the first night of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention
Rodney Floyd (L) and Philonise Floyd (R), brothers of George Floyd, speak on the first night of the Democratic National Convention on August 17, 2020. The convention is taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
DNCC via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention is giving politicians a platform to share their vision for the future of the country, but it’s also making room for speakers who, perhaps, belong to an even more important group: the electorate, particularly the families of people who have been slain by police.

The virtual convention kicked off Monday evening with a lineup of speakers featuring Democratic Party stars such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and former first lady Michelle Obama, as well as lifelong Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All of them issued dire warnings about what four more years of President Donald Trump would mean. Yet it was the presence of these family members, who have experienced some of the deepest pain imaginable, that brought the Democrats’ point home: It’s time for change.

Philonise Floyd — the brother of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May, and whose death help spark global protests — spoke for almost two minutes on the convention’s opening night.

“George should be alive today,” Philonise Floyd said, before mentioning other Black Americans who have lost their lives due to police brutality. “Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland — they should all be alive today.”

He concluded his list with a call to action before leading viewers in a moment of silence. “It’s up to us to carry on the fight for justice,” he added.

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner — who died after an officer placed him in a chokehold in Staten Island, New York, in 2015 — also made an appearance. Carr, who has sought justice for her son since his death, has become an advocate for many other victims of police brutality. On Monday evening, she spoke with Joe Biden directly and made the case for systemic reform: “I’m just asking that if you become the president, that you make sure that we get national law as well as state and local law, especially when it comes to police brutality because that has been an age-old problem.”

The Democratic Party’s decision to put these families front and center is a reminder of politics’ role in the national reckoning over race — and that although Biden has taken a more moderate stance on police reforms, as president he would continue to face pressure from activists and protesters to enact sweeping change. And the messages of each family member made explicit something that the ongoing protests have sought to highlight: There’s so much more work to be done.

2020 isn’t the first year that family members of police brutality victims have been invited to speak at the DNC. In 2016, Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, joined six other mothers on stage — each of whom had a child who died as a result of either police actions or gun violence — and said, “When a young Black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us.”

Four years later, a mother and brother delivered the same message. Going forward, activists are calling on Democrats to ensure that these family members aren’t just used as props during one of America’s biggest political events, but treated as citizens to whom they’re willing to listen and learn from, and for whom they’re willing to find ways to make policy changes.

There remains debate over what changes should be made and which ones are possible

There have been some signs Democrats are willing to advocate for policy changes. Cities across the country have passed police reform legislation in recent months; the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would curb qualified immunity, bolstering victims’ ability to hold police responsible for transgressions including excessive use of force. The bill would also impose a ban on both chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level. (A no-knock warrant is the type of warrant used by the officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her own home in March.)

The bill has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate, however.

Both Carr and Philonise Floyd (but especially Carr) advocated for this approach on Monday, asking Democrats to go beyond symbolic gestures.

How far beyond those gestures the Democratic Party should go, and what advocacy for police brutality victims should look like, has been debated by activists and party officials alike. Some feel the House bill is a sufficient first step, and others demand more systemic changes, such as the reallocation of policing budgets to social services and other types of public spending, known as “defunding the police.”

An example of this debate has emerged around DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who introduced Philonise Floyd on Monday. Bowser gained global attention for painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on an intersection near the White House, which she named “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

Bowser spoke during the DNC livestream from Black Lives Matter Plaza, but was met with criticism from DC residents who said the mayor, because of her opposition to defunding the police, was not living up to the meaning behind “Black Lives Matter.” Biden, who is poised to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination later this week, has also said he does not support the idea.

Both Carr and Philonise Floyd were clear about what they want to happen next. For Floyd, it’s seeing people stand up for the people whose deaths didn’t go viral. “When this moment ends, let’s make sure we never stop saying their names,” he said.

And Carr said she wants to see Democrats held accountable, even once police brutality and systemic racism are no longer hot topics.

“I know when my son was murdered, it was a big uprising,” Carr said. “But then it settled down. We can’t let things settle down. We have to go to the politicians, and we have to hold their feet to the fire.”

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