MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - The dehumanization of Black victims of police violence takes multiple forms — not just through the violence inflicted on them in their deaths, but also through the flattening of their stories that occurs when their name is turned into a hashtag, and they come to be defined by the way they died instead of by the full lives they lived.
The media and/or criminal justice system will fixate on the manner of the victim's death. Debates ensue about who is responsible and what needs to change. Who the victim was and the life they lived is given much less attention, relatively, than the images, video, or witness accounts detailing the brutality of their final moments.
In Minnesota, this is true of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Daunte Wright and most recently, Amir Locke. And it is perhaps most true for George Floyd, a man whose murder at the hand of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been viewed millions of times over on social media and whose name, and the chants and hashtags associated with it, came to represent the largest protest movement this country has seen in a generation.
But what of the man in the video? While known and mourned by many in our community, to a national audience, Floyd’s full life story is less known, though an emerging body of works has been created to document his life and legacy. "His Name Is George Floyd," a new book by Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, now stands as a definitive account of Floyd's life and the societal forces that shaped it.
A deeper understanding of the man in the video
When he began work on the book, Olorunnipa hadn’t yet seen the video of Floyd’s murder. When the time came to write that section of the book, Olorunnipa and Samuels had done hundreds of interviews with Floyd's family, friends, and people who knew him throughout the course of his life.
All that research had given them a better sense of who Floyd was, which made watching the video that much more difficult.
"It was hard to watch someone that we had learned about in interviews and in different ways and through their own writings and through the research that we had done about his American experience. To watch him die, even though we knew the end of the story when we first started this research, it was tough. It was emotional. It was painful to see," Olorunnipa said.
Their research also gave them a deeper insight into what they were seeing. They understood, for instance, that Floyd had become deeply claustrophobic after a stay in prison, and that he was terrified of being put in the police car and going back to jail — which contributed to the panic he felt during his interaction with the officers, even before Chauvin arrived.
"We understood the context better than we might have if we had just watched it and not known as much as we did about George Floyd. And that's what we hope people when they pick up the book, feel the same way. When they understand more about George Floyd's life, the things that they saw on the video will make more sense," he said.
Floyd’s origin story
The authors' efforts to explain the context of Floyd’s life led them to include a chapter on his family history, "Roots," which focuses on the story of Floyd’s great-great-grandfather Hillery Thomas Stewart, who was born enslaved in 1857.
Over the course of 30 years working as a free Black man in North Carolina, Stewart managed to become one of the largest Black landowners in the state with over 500 acres of land, an accomplishment records indicate was due both to his hard work and the fact that he had his extended family — 15 people — working the land with him. Stewart's success made him a target, and following the end of reconstruction, all of his land and wealth was taken from him by white authorities. Thousands of other Black families across the South suffered the same fate. Stewart died a pauper.
"Because of racism, George Floyd's great-great-grandfather lost all of his land in the late 19th Century because it was not well-received for him to be a wealthy Black person in the South at a time when there were white people that weren't as wealthy as he was, and he was ridiculed for his wealth and targeted for his wealth," Olorunnipa explained.
"We were able to track over the next several generations until Floyd arrived on the scene, how that moment in his family's history really set his family back in perpetuity."
Olorunnipa describes that family history as the "origin" of Floyd’s story.
"It's so important to every other thing that happened to him over the course of his life and the fact that he was born Black and poor in America. His mother told him, 'You're born with two strikes. You don't get a chance to have a second chance or to make mistakes. And that was incredibly important for us to show that racism was a part of its origin story," Olorunnipa said.
Floyd’s struggles: ‘I ain’t better than nobody else'
The authors do not portray Floyd as a saint, but instead, seek to put his struggles and his decisions — the good and the bad — within their larger historical and societal context.
We see how growing up in public housing complex in the "bottoms" — the poorest section of the poorest neighborhood in Houston, he saw football as a way out and embrace it, adding muscle to his 6-foot, 5-inch frame and becoming "Big Floyd" as well as a star tight end on a high school team that reached the state championship game in his senior year in 1992.
But while Floyd looked the part of an intimidating football player, his personality both on and off the field didn’t match his physique. While he was a talented athlete, he was more known for the jokes he cracked at practice than for his hard-hitting blocks.
"He was not an aggressive football player. He was someone that the coaches tried to toughen up because they felt he was big and was supposed to be scary. But when it came down to it, he was more of a paper tiger on the football field and was much more into the finesse parts of the game than the tough parts of the game," Olorunnipa said.
One of the recurring themes in the book is that, throughout his life, Floyd felt self-conscious about his size and how people perceived him because of it.
"His body presented itself as this large, intimidating stature that often he was aware of in terms of how people responded to it, and that he would try to compensate for by going into a room and taking everyone's hands and trying to put everyone at ease and going around saying, ‘I love you’ all the time because he did not want to be a threat. He did not want to be seen as, this ‘intimidating guy,’" Olorunnipa said,
Floyd had stayed out of trouble in high school, but when his dreams of playing football or basketball in college faded, in large part because of his struggles with standardized tests, he returned home to the Third Ward with little prospects. He got a job as a bouncer but struggled to make ends meet.
It wasn’t long before he got caught up in one of his neighborhood’s biggest industries — the drug trade. However, as the book describes, Floyd, the gentle giant and jokester, was never a good hustler, lacking the "drive and ruthlessness" to hold a corner. The crack epidemic was in full swing, and Houston’s police narcotics divisions aggressively targeted the area, earning the moniker "the jump out boys" for their tendency to jump out of unmarked cars and frisk young Black men in search of drugs. In 1997, Floyd was arrested for selling $18 worth of crack to an undercover police officer.
Over the course of the next decade, he would be in and out of jail. Again, the authors provide context:
"Texas was on the bleeding edge of the 1990s race to incarcerate, locking up Blacks at a rate seven times higher than Whites. As the state’s prison system tripled in size between 1990 and 2000, it overtook California’s to become the largest in the country and was second only to Louisiana’s on a per capita basis. By the time Floyd began cycling through that system at the age of twenty-three, almost a third of young Black men in Texas were under the supervision of the state’s Department of Criminal Justice — in prison or jail, or on probation or parole."
His most serious conviction came in 2007 for aggravated robbery. The case against him wasn’t airtight, and the authors’ research seems to suggest he was likely the get-away driver in the home invasion, as opposed to a man who went inside with a gun and pointed it at a woman, as prosecutors alleged. He took a plea deal and served more than four years of a five years sentence.
His return to Houston after college in the late 1990s was also the part of his life in which he tried to make it in rap. He became part of the Houston hip-hop scene at a time when it was becoming nationally influential, driven by the slowed down, warped "chopped and screwed" production style of DJ Screw. As the book notes, one of Floyd's written verses captured his internal struggle at the time: "I’ve been broke for so long / I’ve been stuck in last place for so long / Loaded (loaded) with potential but I’m still going wrong."
Later, when in Minnesota, Floyd would express a similar sentiment in a video he posted to social media. "I’ve got my shortcomings and my flaws. I ain’t better than nobody else."
Finding hope in the story of George Floyd
Floyd was aware of his flaws, and he tried to confront them. When he moved to Minnesota in 2014, it was to get clean and be part of a rehab program he’d heard about through friends. He wanted to get custody of his daughter and be a better father. Samuels sees the decision as part of a pattern in Floyd’s life.
"One of the through-lines in the book was that George Floyd was never a person who tried to succumb to the worst that humanity or this country gave him. He always wanted to seize an opportunity, to try" Samuels said.
"He wanted to build a better life for his daughter. And so that's what Minnesota represented to him."
He found work as a security guard at the Salvation Army shelter near the Hennepin Theater District downtown and at a the Conga Latin Bistro near the St. Anothony East neighborhood. He came part of both communities. At Conga, regulars developed a dance move in his name, the "Big Floyd," in which they would "stiffen their hips and roll their shoulders." At the Salvation Army, he was known for making sure younger people shelter weren't bullied.
"And so the community that surrounded him, they were drawn to him because of his size and his gregarious nature. But what really undercut, what really undergirded that feeling was the seeming contradiction — that really shouldn't be a contradiction in our society — there was this large black man who was so gentle and so friendly," Samuels said.
While Samuels and Olorunnipa found the process of writing "His Name is George Floyd" to be emotionally draining at times, they both found hope in Floyd’s willingness to continue striving, despite the bad hand he had been dealt and the setbacks he experienced.
"I think that's emblematic of the Black experience in America for the last four centuries, is that even with all the hardships, even with all the discrimination, all the racism, the land loss, the loss of wealth, the loss of potential, and because of systemic racism, Black Americans continue to strive and fight for this country both literally and metaphorically in making the effort to make this a better country, maintaining a level of commitment to the American ideal, to the American promise, to the founding documents, even when Black people were written out of them literally," Olorunnipa said. "And even then being written into them, Black people have not been able to receive the full benefit. That promissory note continues to be unfulfilled. But Black people continue to believe in it. They continue to believe in this country."
Olorunnipa points to a passage toward the end of the book, when they interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson, who put the protest movement following Floyd’s death within the context of the long struggle for civil rights, saying that there will be low points, but the long arc of history points toward justice.
"When you look at it from that perspective, things do have the potential to get better. And every small bit of progress is something worth acknowledging and realizing that people work hard for that progress. And so that's one thing that left me with hope, is that people have remained resolved despite the hardship, despite the trials. And they continue to remain committed to the American promise," he said.