On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. His murder sparked a global outcry for racial justice which led to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform. Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, visited the University of Michigan on Friday to speak to students about her book, “Lift Your Voice: How My Nephew George Floyd’s Murder Changed the World,” which was published in February 2022.
The talk was sponsored by the University’s Democracy & Debate initiative — operated by various departments across the University — and the Center for Racial Justice. The conversation, which the University presented as a Masterclass in Activism, was moderated by Celeste M. Watkins-Hayes, Center for Racial Justice director and Dean of the School of Public Policy. In the Rackham auditorium, Harrelson shared her nephew’s story and spoke about her personal experience with activism after his murder.
Harrelson began by talking about her relationship with Floyd, who she referred to by his nickname, “Perry.” Throughout the course of the discussion, she elaborated on the impact Floyd’s death had on their family, and how his story became emblematic of systemic racial injustice on a global scale in the summer of 2020.
“His name became more like a hashtag to some people, but to me, he was family,” Harrelson said.
Along with their family history, Harrelson spoke about her involvement with social activism following Floyd’s death. She said she still spends several days at the George Floyd Memorial Square in Minneapolis, greeting the visitors and listening to their stories and perspectives on Floyd’s murder. She said she wrote “Lift Your Voice” to share her own story — from the events leading up to Floyd’s death to her thoughts on the proliferation of systemic racism in the U.S.
“If (Floyd) can muster those words and find the courage to say ‘I can’t breathe’ in those conditions, with a man with the knee on his neck, then surely I can … be a voice for him,” Harrelson said. “As much as I can I go out (to the memorial) and the (visitors) share their stories with me and their strength — what they sacrificed. … Their life was threatened because they were fighting for justice for my nephew Perry.”
Harrelson encouraged everyone in the audience to find the courage to stand up for what they believed in and initiate the changes they want to see in the world around them. Everyone has a voice, Harrelson said, so they should use it to advocate for change in any way that they can.
“If you can sing, sing for justice,” Harrelson said. “If you can cook, cook for justice. If you can do artwork, be an artist for justice. You don’t have to be in the streets protesting. There’s so many ways.”
Catherine Carver, the lead of the Democracy & Debate initiative visited the George Floyd Memorial Square last summer which is where she met Harrelson for the first time. Carver introduced Harrelson at the event and told the story of their first meeting. Carver said she was immediately struck by Harrelson’s presence and invited her to come speak at the University not long after.
“I was struck by the way that Angela greets (all the memorial visitors), shares her story and then listens to their processing of George Floyd’s (death),” Carver said. “Oftentimes, she’s listening to their coming to recognition of their own existence within a systemic racist society. (It’s a) heavy burden for somebody to bear again and again and again and she with the most extraordinary grace, would sit there and listen and acknowledge (the visitors).”
LSA freshman Sophia Meguid attended the event Friday and said she found Harrelson’s story inspiring. She said she appreciated Harrelson’s willingness to tell such a personal story in front of a crowd.
“I just think that everything she had to say is going to stick with all of us,” Meguid said. “She was so genuine and raw with her experiences. I think the least we can do is be vulnerable and realize the things that we experience and the things that we can make change for the better in our lives.”
After the discussion ended, Harrelson received a standing ovation. In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, Harrelson said she was thankful for the opportunity to share her perspective on Floyd’s life and the importance of activism with U-M students.
“I love Michigan,” Harrelson said. “My heart warms for the reception by the students. They were so nice and they were so eager to be here and they were so open minded and supportive … I love coming out and sharing my stories with the students and I look forward to doing more.”
At the event, Harrelson left the audience with advice based on everything she’s learned since her nephew’s death.
“You have to know that not everyone is going to be for what you’re fighting for,” she said. “But one thing you have to realize is that if you want to start something like this, you don’t need everybody. You don’t need 100 people. You can have three people to have a movement. You just need the right people.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sirianna Blanck can be reached at email@example.com.