Angela Harrelson, aunt of George Floyd and author, visits Lafayette
When Angela Harrelson’s nephew, George Perry Floyd, died under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, on May 25, 2020, people in communities across the country and around the globe took notice while pondering what could be done for a more just inclusive world, free of police violence.
On Monday, March 13, Harrelson will be at the Town Hall Theater in Lafayette at 7pm to shine a light on who Floyd was, where he came from and what she is doing to keep his legacy alive, while sharing her book, Lift Your Voice: How My Nephew George Floyd’s Murder Changed the World.
When Lynn MacMichael, a community activist in her early 80s, watched the excruciating last minutes of Floyd’s life, the impact was undeniable. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I have spent a lot of my life in war zones, doing work for peace organizations. I did work with Jesse Gray in Harlem when he led rent strikes (and other national and international actions). But I realized I hadn’t done enough in the town I lived in—Lafayette,” MacMichael says.
She and others spearheaded efforts to form the town’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging group and began actions to center discussions of issues like housing access. “Even though I had worked on the periphery and lived in Lafayette since 1969 with privilege, (I hadn’t) follow(ed) through on addressing unfair housing practices here in Lafayette, across the Bay and around the country,” she continues.
Council member Wei-Tai Kwok remembers marching alongside people like MacMichel and youth two weeks after Floyd was killed. “This Black Lives Matter march was organized and attended by our local high school students. In my 20 years living in this city, I have not seen a larger and more emotional crowd (coming together) to show solidarity,” Kwok says.
“We must never forget, and must keep momentum building for justice and change. This is not easy; in a world with so many other crises and challenges consuming our time, energy and mindshare, Angela Harrelson’s voice can be a personal and timely reminder to stay the course,” notes Kwok.
Harrelson first met her nephew, George Perry Floyd when she was 17 and he was five years old, when Floyd’s mother came back to stay at her childhood home with George Floyd and his siblings. As one of 14 children (including one who died during infancy) and the daughter of sharecroppers, Harrelson grew up humbly. “We were very poor. We didn’t have indoor plumbing. Our house could have easily been condemned,” she says.
“We didn’t have much of anything, but we had a house full of love. I remember little Perry (George Floyd). He was so humble and sweet. He didn’t care that he had to use an outhouse or that the house was falling apart. He was happy,” notes Harrelson.
Floyd grew up in the projects of Houston, TX with his mom and four siblings. Harrelson says that his father struggled with addiction, and his mother raised her own kids and some of her grandchildren. She recalls that Floyd was known as a talented athlete—particularly when it came to basketball and even football. Harrelson believes that if Floyd had been able to stick with his sports, the world might have known him as a professional basketball player.
But, she says the conditions and struggles ultimately created more obstacles for him than he could bear. “He always knew that his father was out there somewhere, and I think that weighed on him,” notes Harrelson. That, she says, is how he got into drugs. “He did the wrong things for the right reasons (and he ended up getting addicted),” she explains.
Floyd experienced bouts of incarceration for crimes related to sustaining his addiction. He went through treatment and worked hard to stay sober, but sometimes relapsed, as more than half of people with substance addictions do. The problem, Harrelson writes in her book, Lift Your Voice, is in the way society treats people with addictions. She points out that when a white person struggles with substance abuse or addiction, they are treated as someone with an addiction or a disease. When a Black person does, she writes, they are seen as a criminal.
It was Floyd’s determination to stay sober and to carve out a better life for himself and his community after he got out of prison that led him to Minnesota. “When (George Floyd) got out of prison, he started doing a lot of community outreach work with a pastor in Houston. It was still in him to help. He was all about the community. He was like a ghetto superstar,” Harrelson says. “Through that work (and the pastor that he helped), he got connected with someone in Minnesota and relocated for a fresh start.”
Once in Minnesota, Floyd went through treatment, got a job at the Salvation Army, another at a club as a bouncer and another as a truck driver. “He and I would check in and FaceTime with each other, and I even tried to convince him to come work at the hospital with me,” Harrelson recalls.
Even though Floyd never followed through on that, Harrelson says he did accomplish a long bout of sobriety. “He was working out everyday and he was talking straight and going to work. He really was doing well,” she says.
When Harrelson got word that the health of her sister, Floyd’s mom, was failing, things started to go downhill a little bit for Floyd. “My sister didn’t want him (George Floyd) to come home because she didn’t want him to be around all the negative influences he left behind. It was more important for her to see him sober and doing well than to have him at her side,” Harrelson remembers.
Ultimately, Floyd’s mother died on May 30, 2018, just shy of two years from the day that Floyd was killed. To bid her farewell, Floyd and Harrelson ultimately met in Texas, and that’s when Harrelson, who is a nurse for people with chemical dependencies, knew that something was wrong. “He (George Floyd) wasn’t the same. I could see it in his eyes. And when I hugged him, I could feel how skinny he’d gotten. (That’s when I knew he had likely relapsed),” she notes.
On Floyd’s last day of life, when he called out for his mama, Harrelson believes that he saw her and reunited with her. “When he said Mama, I think she appeared with open arms and said ‘come to me, son, I’ll take care of you,’ and he went,” says his aunt.
Now, Harrelson and others are working toward the George Floyd Global Memorial, a place to memorialize those who have died of violence and a project that works towards a world where police-involved killings will no longer be common-place. If people remember only one thing about her late nephew, Harrelson hopes they remember that he was human and he had a big heart. “Now, he’s up above us with my great-grandfather, who was born into slavery, and his mom sending us the strength and the will to fight for a better world,” Harrelson says.
Dennis Markam, the managing director of the Town Hall Theater, is thrilled that Harrelson is bringing her story to Lafayette and believes the theater is the perfect venue for her forthcoming visit. “This building has been a community gathering place since it was first built, so it feels right (for this) event,” Markam says. “It was shortly after George Floyd’s murder that we at Town Hall suspended almost all of our programming so that we could fully rebuild in a way that is not only more equitable, but anti-racist.”
Markam says the event is important, not only to the Town Hall Theater, but also to the town of Lafayette. “(In largely) white communities, when we talk about racial injustice and systemic abuses of power and all of these big, multifaceted topics, it becomes incredibly easy to turn folks like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Trayvon Martin or Miles Hall into ideas rather than people. Ms. Harrelson’s work gives us a human context to the narrative of George Floyd’s murder, a sense of who her nephew was as a person, and how the world can honor his memory by enacting systemic changes.”
While Markam says Lafayette has made great strides in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the city, there are still opportunities to do more. “It would be wonderful if Ms. Harrelson’s message reinvigorates our neighbors to seriously and honestly look at what they can do as individuals and a community to work to make Lafayette more accessible and equitable,” he adds.
For information or tickets for Angela Harrelson’s Town Hall Theater visit on March 13 at 7pm, visit townhalltheater.com. Tickets are available for free with donations, and all proceeds will benefit the George Floyd Memorial. Copies of Harrelson’s book, ‘Lift Your Voice,’ can be pre-ordered with Reasonable Books via email at [email protected], or by calling 925-385-3026.