Three years ago, footage of the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis emerged online, sparking a firestorm of outrage that spread well beyond America’s borders. As protesters took to the streets to demand racial justice and an end to police brutality, George Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, was stunned.
He had never expected his late nephew’s name to be chanted so swiftly by hundreds of thousands around the world who stood in solidarity with his family. Three years after Floyd’s murder, 57-year-old Jones has discovered different ways to grow around his grief, largely through the Hope929 Foundation, a nonprofit focused on addressing racial justice which he co-founded with Liz Darden, an Arkansas-based educator.
On 26 May 2020, Jones was in South Dakota watching the news of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery unfold on television. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, had been murdered by two white men as he jogged in a Georgia neighborhood. Like George Floyd, his murder was captured on video.
“I see this and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god. Will somebody please help this guy?’” Jones told the Guardian.
“And then my sister calls me and she said: ‘Did you see what the police did to [George]? I sat back and something stuck her hand in my chest and just pulled it out because that was my big sister’s baby boy. And there was nothing he could do but wait to die,” he said, adding, “The world has never been the same.”
Jones, who went to Minneapolis last month to mark the third year anniversary of his nephew’s death, has in the last two years made what he calls “the pivot”.
“It’s about letting people see that normal people can set out to make a difference in this world through a tragedy … You don’t have to stay stuck in the mud. Tragedies to us are fuel for us to make a difference,” he said.
In June 2022, Jones went on to co-found Hope929 alongside Liz Darden, an educator living in Harrison, Arkansas, whom he met through a series of local and community advocacy events.
To Jones and Darden, the purpose of Hope929 extends beyond tackling police brutality.
“It’s all unjust issues,” Darden told the Guardian. “Historically, marginalized groups have been disenfranchised so we created a nonprofit to help meet the needs of those individuals and build stronger, more equitable futures for communities around the world.”
Hope929 offers a wide variety of tools for change. In addition to youth-focused seminars and workshops focused on public speaking and public safety, the foundation is developing care packages to send as immediate responses to individuals experiencing certain traumas, including the loss of loved ones to police violence.
“We want to … put into perspective that equity is a personal journey,” said Darden, adding that the foundation is developing programs that will offer transitional resources for individuals coming out of incarceration, as well as expanding partnerships with groups to serve as a clearinghouse for homeless communities.
To Darden, helping Jones launch Hope929 came from deeply personal reasons. As an educator and mother raising biracial children, Darden lives in Harrison, Arkansas, a town of 13,000 people which has infamously been deemed online as the “most racist town in America”.
Functioning as headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, Harrison attracted nationwide attention after it became the focus of a viral July 2020 Youtube video in which a filmmaker held a Black Lives Matter sign in the town. The video, titled “Holding a Black Lives Matter Sign in America’s Most Racist Town,” has attracted over 12m views and features numerous white passersby shouting racist insults at the filmmaker as he held up his sign.
“I’m in a community that is facing prejudice of being the most racist town in the nation. It’s a false label, and I speak out on that just to show that we are not,” said Darden. “[Hope929] is an opportunity to have uncomfortable conversations and make others…hear what needs to be heard.”
Despite the global momentum for racial justice which emerged after George Floyd’s killing, Jones still believes not enough progress has been made.
“There will never be enough done until all of the killing stops,” said Jones, as he listed names of other Black people who were murdered by police including Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols and Eric Garner.
Following the murder of George Floyd, Democratic lawmakers introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a federal bill aimed to address police brutality by banning federal law enforcement officers from using chokeholds, cracking down on no-knock warrants, and allowing officers accused of violence to be more easily prosecuted.
Although the bill was passed twice in the House, first in June 2020 and then in March 2021, collapsed bipartisan talks with Republican senators stalled the sweeping bill, especially as lawmakers found themselves at a gridlock surrounding the elimination of qualified immunity for officers.
In February, the bill garnered national headlines again after RowVaughn Wells, the mother of 29-year old Tyre Nichols who was killed by Memphis police officers in January, made an impassioned plea at her son’s funeral for the bill to be passed.
To Jones, eliminating qualified immunity seems too unrealistic. “They would literally have to strip it down so it would not be effective, it would not be relevant to the paper that it is used on, because if it was going to be passed, it would’ve already been passed,” he said.
Instead, Jones has been focusing his efforts on the passage of a federal Medical Civil Rights bill which would provide individuals with the legal right to medical assistance during police encounters.
“All we are doing is piggybacking off of … my nephew’s last minutes when his life was taken… We’re not talking about the life he lived. We’re talking about the last 15 minutes of his life which was tortured beyond belief. He was breathing off 2% airflow capacity going into his lungs. He had rocks in his shoulder and his chin where he was trying to raise himself up because he didn’t want to leave. He wasn’t ready to leave,” said Jones.
Darden echoed similar sentiments about the bill, saying: “This would save countless lives. It’s unbelievable that in America, this bill is not already in effect.”
In addition to Hope929 and his efforts to pass the Medical Civil Rights bill, Jones has been working on another project with various elected officials to preserve his nephew’s legacy – to designate 25 May as George Floyd Forever Day.
“I want it to be the second Fourth of July. After you think about how the process happened, I want you to literally sit back and go, ‘Hey, he made an opportunity for others to make this place a better place by establishing different laws, different rules and just a whole different feel of racism and police brutality,” said Jones.
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