Life Lessons: Jamal Harvey of Queen City Unity
The 1985 police killing of his brother still powers his efforts to unite his adopted city
On the night of April 20, 1985—nearly three decades before repeated police killings of Black people lit the fuse of the Black Lives Matter movement—31-year-old Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson helped two employees at a 7-Eleven in Portland, Oregon, foil a robbery, then got into a fight with a witness in the parking lot.
Police arrived, and a white officer placed Stevenson, a Black father of five and former Marine, in a choke hold, the same type of restraint that police would use in the killing of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014. Stevenson collapsed, and he died 45 minutes later in a Portland hospital. Portland’s Black community was furious and took to the streets. An inquest jury ruled the case a negligent homicide, but a grand jury later declined to indict the officer.
Jamal Harvey was Stevenson’s younger brother. “That changed things a lot for me as a kid,” he says, “because from 12 years (old) on, whether it was right or wrong, I didn’t feel I could trust the police at all.”
Harvey, 47, moved to Charlotte in 2007 and began to volunteer for community organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Carolinas chapter; he’s also a bill payments supervisor for AvidXchange. After a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, he and some of his nonprofit contacts founded Queen City Unity, a community organization that offers diversity and financial education to young people and helps organize food and clothing drives for the poor and homeless. The group is driven by the idea, which Harvey emphasizes as board chairman, “that we can unite our community through acts of kindness.”
We sat down with Harvey to discuss his life, his mission with Queen City Unity, and how the police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed stirred memories of his older brother’s death. His words have been edited for space and clarity.
I’m a dad and a husband. I start there. Other than that, I’m a guy who is 47 years old who has seen a lot of things. Not everything, but enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong. I always choose to lean on the side of doing right by myself and other people. That’s kind of how I live my life.
Childhood was pretty awesome. I was born in Oakland in 1973. We moved to Portland in 1976. Moved to a working-class neighborhood. I went to Catholic school. Pretty average upbringing.
I was 12 when my brother was killed by the police. As I look back on that now, I really could’ve gone one of two ways. I credit my parents for not letting me go down the “angry Black man” way. You know, “Everything is bad, and everybody is out to get us.” While that might have been the case, they didn’t allow me to think that way.
My brother was a Marine for years. He was my personal G.I. Joe doll. He was a security guard when he left the Marines, and he was studying to be a state trooper in Oregon. My brother was 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, big, burly guy. Heart of gold, though. He attempts to stop the robbery, and the police show up and they see a Black guy and a white guy wrestling in the parking lot, and they grab my brother and choke him and kill him. So it’s a situation where, had he been committing the robbery and the police did that, I’d feel a lot different because he would’ve been in the wrong. He was there trying to do the right thing.
They assume he’s the guy committing the robbery when everybody around is screaming, “You got the wrong guy! You got the wrong guy!” Then to compound that, officers printed T-shirts that said, “Don’t Choke ’Em, Smoke ’Em.” They were wearing those at my brother’s funeral. They were throwing opossums and rats on our porch because we were suing the city, so that really shaped a lot of how I thought about things and about people.
I do remember the demonstrations. They marched day in, day out for probably 10 days or so. It did start that wave of social justice in action. The thing that disappoints me is that we’re 35 years later, and people are carrying some of the same signs they carried when my brother died. Almost the exact same verbiage on the sign. It’s kind of hurtful.
I learned at 12 that the world is not all sunny and roses. My dad would talk to me about things: You have to be careful. You’re a young Black kid. You go to private school. People are going to look at you and assume things about you without getting to know you. You’re going to have to go out of your way to show people you’re a Harvey, what it means to be a Harvey. I always wanted to make sure that I was making myself proud and my family proud.
My dad was born in 1924 in Forest, Mississippi. He left at age 16 and joined the Army because he felt it was safer to go to Europe and fight the Germans than be in Mississippi. So when you look at the history of me and my family, I should’ve been one of those knuckleheads who is like “hate whitey” because my dad went through all these awful things growing up and then went through another awful thing in 1985. Through all that, he didn’t fall into the trap of saying, “This is how I am going to act.” He was always, “Raise yourself up. Don’t fall into the trap of how other people think you should be acting.”
The Eric Garner one was really tough. It was really tough. It was a choking situation. It was a police officer’s hands around this man’s neck. This brought me right back to my brother with the police officer’s hands around my brother’s neck. I just don’t understand why these things keep happening.
Oh, my goodness. Every time something like this happens again, it brings me back to being a 12-year-old kid and having my dad come in and tell me, “This is what happened to your brother,” and not understanding it. There’s some kid or some teenager who someone is having this conversation with, and they don’t know how to process it, and their first reaction is going to be anger.
A few of us got together after Keith Lamont Scott to figure out what we were going to do. We were going to write an op-ed. Then through our conversations, we developed Queen City Unity. That quickly morphed and turned into not just a response to the riot group but, “How can we unite Charlotte?” That’s how we came up with the name. “Something terrible has happened. How can we do things to bring our community together?”
We’ve fed the homeless. We’ve done food drives. One of the things I’m most proud of is, we got 10,000 pounds of clothes for foster kids. Shoes, hats, gloves, things like that. We wanted to turn a negative into a positive.
I’m not a real big “go out, march, and protest” guy. Personally, I don’t know if that works. They marched when my brother died 35 years ago, and they’re still marching. I’ve always tried to work myself into the system and effect change from inside the system. I worked in the public defenders’ office for 12 years in Portland. You can go and bang on City Hall’s door, and they’re not going to let you in, and they’re just going to say you’re a crazy guy outside screaming. Or you can work and get inside City Hall and know the people inside City Hall and go knock on Bob’s door and say, “Bob, have you thought of it this way?”
Before the George Floyd incident happened, I would’ve told you nothing would ever change. Normally, the thing hits the news media for three or four days, and then it goes away. But the thing that really struck me is, when I looked at the protests, there were very few people who looked like me. There were more people who looked like my wife, who’s white, and I was like, “Wow, this is really surprising me.” To see so many people who didn’t look like me protesting, holding signs, giving their time and testimonies, really makes me think that we are gaining traction in the diversity and inclusion area in this country.
The message I deliver to everybody is: Be kind. Just be kind. There are going to be these things that happen to you in your life that are going to be unfortunate. Losing someone in a tragic way is one of the worst things that could happen to you, but don’t let it shape how you treat other people. I have not let it shape me where I hate every single police officer.
There is a percentage of police officers who are good. There is a percentage of police officers who are not good. I treat everybody with respect until they give me a reason not to. For the readers of this article: Live your life for you. Move past adversity. Don’t ever forget what happened. Let it shape the way you think. Don’t let it shape the way you act.