The life of George Floyd: ‘He knew how to make people feel better’

Joanna Walters
·3 min read

George Floyd’s loved ones said at his funeral on 9 June last year that his tragic killing at the hands of police was “going to change the world”.

But who was George Floyd and why did his excruciating demise, out of so many thousands of police-involved deaths in the US, make his name one that, to quote his family again, “everybody is going to remember”?

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was living in Minneapolis when the police pinned him to the street during an arrest for an alleged misdemeanor on 25 May 2020, and Derek Chauvin, a white officer, kneeled on his neck for – a jury later heard – nine minutes and 29 seconds.

Related: Will the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict change policing in America?

But he was born George Perry Floyd, Jr, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on 14 October 1973 and grew up in Houston, Texas, where he was eventually laid to rest, his six-year-old daughter talking in the days after his death about how much she would miss him.

Growing over 6ft tall as a teen and ultimately to 6ft 6in, and a popular, formidable athlete, he was best known in his Texas youth affectionately as a gentle giant and “Big Floyd”, the tremendous football and basketball player, which he hoped would be a ticket out of his poor neighborhood.

It did not prove to be. Floyd was unable to escape the clutches of drug crime and ended up in prison, but after he was free again he campaigned against violence, mentoring young men and being mentored in many ways himself by other community leaders and his involvement with an outreach ministry.

Getting good work was hard, however, and Floyd moved to Minneapolis with a friend in 2014 to start a new chapter. He worked at a variety of jobs and was doing security work at a Salvation Army shelter when he met Courteney Ross.

She became his girlfriend and gave heart-wrenching testimony at Derek Chauvin’s murder trial about how she and Floyd slipped into opioid dependency after being prescribed painkillers, just two more people out of millions hit by America’s opioids crisis.

Every day of the three weeks of opening arguments and testimony in Chauvin’s trial, members of Floyd’s family, usually one of his brothers and more often that not Philonise Floyd, occupied the single seat in the courtroom allocated to Floyd friends and relatives amid tight coronavirus restrictions.

Philonise was also allowed to address the court about his older brother’s character.

He told the jury George Floyd “was so much of a leader to us in the household”.

“He would always make sure that we had our clothes for school,” he recalled. “He made sure that we all were going to be in school on time. He just was like a person that everybody loved around the community. He just knew how to make people feel better.”

He also said: “He was a big mama’s boy,” describing Floyd’s relationship with their mother.

When she died in May 2018, Philonise recalled, “He would just say ‘Mama, Mama’ over and over again.

And it was what George Floyd cried out as he was dying under Chauvin’s knee on that south Minneapolis street, having ultimately not been able to escape the legion consequences of growing up Black and poor in America and having to navigate the criminal justice system and the dangers of being confronted by the police.

Those cries were caught on the bystander video that went viral, as well as Floyd’s repeated pleas for mercy as he said he could not breathe and onlookers, including an elderly man and a nine-year-old child, begged the police to let up and “get off of him”.

The stark video left no room for cover-up.

And the graphic analogy expressed by many protesters and activists since then was that this was not just one more white police officer killing a Black man but the proverbial continuation of a white America that has been pressing its knee into the neck of Black America with impunity since 1619.