George Floyd moved to Minnesota to start a new life, only to have his journey cut short when he took his last breath under the knee of a white police officer.
The story of how Floyd’s killing unleashed a sea of protests around the world in the fight for racial justice is well known. But as the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin starts Monday in Minneapolis, friends and family say it’s important to remember Floyd the person, before he became the catalyst.
They want you to know that Floyd, at 6-foot-7, went by the nickname “Big Floyd,” or his middle name, Perry, that he was aware others might find his sheer presence intimidating — and that he was anything but.
“I used to mess with him, I’d say, ‘Oh man, you ain’t nothing but a big old gentle giant,’ ” said Wallace White, who worked with Floyd at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, a homeless outreach center on the fringe of downtown Minneapolis. “I never knew George to be anything but a kindhearted man.”
Friends say Floyd, who worked as a security guard with White, was easygoing and gentle toward the people who sought help at the center and were desperate to get their life back on track. White said Floyd naturally could see eye to eye with them, given his own struggles over the years.
Floyd grew up as one of five children in the Third Ward of Houston, a historically Black neighborhood in Texas with a rich history of arts and culture. He was a star athlete, playing basketball and football at Jack Yates High School.
The family says they didn’t have much, but his mother would open up her home to even more teenagers from the neighborhood.
Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, remembered how as kids, the Floyd siblings would cram into the same room, wash their clothes by hand and put them out to dry. They’d argue over who got the bigger plate of food. They played video games inside and football outside.
Philonise Floyd said when they got older, everyone in the neighborhood wanted to cling to George.
“Every day he walks outside, there’d be a line of people wanted to greet him and wanted to have fun with him,” he said at Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis. “Guys that was doing drugs, like smokers and homeless people, you couldn’t tell because when you spoke to George they felt like they were the president because that's how he made you feel.”
Family members say Floyd dreamed of making it in sports to help his mother out as he got older. But like other Black men in the neighborhood, police, poverty and racism were constant in his life.
Records show he had several run-ins with police for possession of small amounts of drugs. In 2007, he was convicted of aggravated robbery and landed him in prison for five years. He was almost 40 years old by the time he was released.
Aubrey Rhodes, a childhood friend who now lives in Minneapolis, admits he also got in trouble for breaking the law back in Houston.
But he said cops would target Black men in the area and at times question them without cause.
“We came from the ghetto. People that live there, they don’t have a lot, used to standing outside police harassing you,” Rhodes recalled of life in the Third Ward.
“Some people, that’s all they know, just hanging out with their friends. But the police don’t look at it like that. They look at it like you’re out here doing criminal things.”
A well-treaded path
Beckoned by Houston transplants who made the journey to Minnesota, Floyd learned of an opportunity to escape and follow their path north. He decided to seek help for drug addiction in Minneapolis in 2017.
Floyd joined a network of those transplants in Minneapolis who helped him through treatment, find a job and start over. He was doing well, they remember. He worked security at a downtown Minneapolis club and the Salvation Army. Floyd told White he was grateful to have the chance to help others, and to leave his troubles behind.
“Talked about how back in Houston he was getting to be on the rough end,” White said. “He was just glad he came here and started his life.”
But at 46 years old, just three years after he moved to Minnesota, the world watched Floyd die on video under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
On that May 25, 2020, evening, Floyd had stopped by the Cup Foods store at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis for cigarettes. The store clerk called the police to report that Floyd used a fake $20 bill.
Then-Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Chauvin responded. Officers tried to get a distressed Floyd in the squad car, but he resisted, saying he was claustrophobic.
Eventually, the handcuffed Floyd ended up face down on the ground, with Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd’s neck and Lane and Kueng holding down his back and legs.
A bystander recorded horrific cellphone video that showed Floyd pleading with Chauvin to let him breathe. One officer told him, “You're talking just fine.” Chauvin pressed on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes.
Bystanders begged the cops to let him go. Floyd called out for his mom.
A public grief
“I watched the whole thing,” Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrelson said a few days after the killing. “When he said the part, ‘mama mama,’ I just dropped to my knees and I just fell.”
Harrelson’s grief for her nephew, whom she called by his middle name Perry, was difficult in its own way. In many situations in which a loved one dies, families grieve in private. This was different. Everyone who was struck by the killing was in mourning.
The outcry over Floyd’s killing led to an unprecedented push for social change. It opened up some people’s eyes to structural racism that has existed for centuries.
Harrelson said people would apologize to her, saying that they regretted ignoring the unfair treatment of Black people by the police over the years.
“This is bigger than racism,” she said. “Yes, it was racist to me, but I’m trying to let people know it’s bigger than racism. It’s about humanity.”
Although Floyd’s killing sent shockwaves around the world, in Minnesota, trauma was built up from police killings of other Black men. A not-guilty verdict for the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was still fresh from three years earlier. The only officer to ever be convicted of murder in an on-duty killing of a civilian was Mohamed Noor, a Black man who shot a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk.
The Minneapolis police chief fired all four officers who were involved in Floyd’s arrest the day after he was killed. But it wasn’t enough to quell the unrest. The city erupted in protests. The Police Department’s 3rd Precinct went up in flames.
People were outraged that the officers had not been arrested. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets. Gov. Tim Walz called in the National Guard and imposed a curfew. Business owners compared the devastation on Lake Street to a war zone.
Prosecutors later filed murder and manslaughter charges against Chauvin, and charged the other officers with aiding and abetting. But because it’s rare for a police officer to be convicted in an on-duty death, community members are skeptical.
A symbol of inequity
They say Floyd’s killing highlights a history of structural racism that includes harmful practices by law enforcement — like over policing in Black and brown neighborhoods, and neck and back restraints.
At Floyd’s memorial last summer, civil rights leader Al Sharpton said the African American community has long suffered from racist systems in all walks of life.
“We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck,” he said. “What happened to Floyd happens everyday in this country in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’ ”
More than nine months after Floyd’s death, community members are now anxiously awaiting the outcome of Chauvin’s trial.
As a Black man in Minneapolis, filmmaker and activist D.A. Bullock said the community has seen other deaths at the hands of police come and go without charges. The outcome of this trial, he says, will show whether progress has been made in the fight to value Black lives.
“The reason George Floyd’s case became famous or infamous is because we watched it real time, we watched the whole nine minutes play out. We watched his life go away in front of our eyes,” he said. “For all of us to have witnessed that, the stakes are higher in a sense, and the spotlight is brighter on this case.”
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