Relatives of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd and Eric Garner say lack of police reform is frustrating

Published 6:06 am Monday, March 25, 2024

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Relatives of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd and Eric Garner — three Black men killed in violent confrontations with police officers — expressed frustration Friday with politicians who have failed to pass police reform legislation or have worked to invalidate laws intended to reduce chances that citizens’ encounters with police end in death.

Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, told an audience at a police violence symposium in Memphis that the time has come for Congress to pass a federal law that would ban certain police tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, proposed after Floyd died in Minneapolis in May 2020 after a white police officer pressed his knee to his neck for more than nine minutes, was passed by the House in 2021, but the Senate failed to reach a consensus.

“You need to know your politicians … because these are people that are not applying pressure to help,” Floyd said. “I’m not telling you what I want. I’m telling you what the world wants. We’re demanding this … people have lost their children, their siblings.”

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Floyd took part in a panel discussion with Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells and his stepfather Rodney Wells; Gwen Carr, the mother of Garner; and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. United by the killings of their loved ones and thrust into the public eye, they all have worked to pass laws addressing police brutality and have pledged to continue their fight in the face of inaction and opposition in the political arena.

The symposium, hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum, was part of a series of gatherings that brought together leaders of the Black community, policymakers, surviving families and activists to examine historical connections of systemic racial violence.

After Nichols’ death stemming from a beating by five Black Memphis police officers in a January 2023 traffic stop, his parents backed police-related ordinances passed by the City Council, including one that banned so called pre-textual traffic stops for minor violations such as a broken tail light. But the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this month that would essentially repeal the ordinances in the majority-Black city, despite pleas from Nichols’ parents to find compromise.

The bill is awaiting the signature of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican and leader of the state that backed Republican Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections. Nichols’ parents said they are seeking to meet with Lee, who has never vetoed a bill. The governor’s office has not publicly weighed in on the meeting request, but he did meet with them in early 2023.

“We are fighting very, very, very hard to keep this bill from passing,” Rodney Wells said. “Memphis is different than the rest of Tennessee, so when you come in and say that you want to override what we’re doing here … it’s a slap in the face.”

Fulton has been pushing for reform since her 17-year-old son was killed in a confrontation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida in February 2012. She’s battled against Florida’s so-called stand your ground law, which removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in the face of danger and was used as a self-defense argument at Zimmerman’s trial, resulting in his acquittal.

Fulton criticized moves by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit what schools can teach about racism and Black history.

“It’s a disconnect between the politicians and the people,” Fulton said. “Politicians are their own little group, and the people are all of us … The people are not understanding what the politicians are doing, and the politicians definitely don’t understand what the people want.”

Also speaking was Carr, whose son Eric Garner died in New York in 2014 after he was put in a chokehold by a white police officer. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Carr lobbied for an executive order directing New York’s attorney general’s office to review cases in which unarmed civilians are killed by police. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed it a year after her son’s death.

“From our tragedies, we never wake up from that. We have to live with that every day,” said Carr, referring to the nightmares suffered by her and her fellow panelists. “It’s too late for our children. There’s no justice for our children because they are gone. But we want closure, we want to go forward, we want to save other children.”