“We’re here today because George Floyd is not here,” Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s first African American Attorney General, said on Wednesday afternoon. “He should be here. He should be alive, but he’s not.” Ellison then announced he was elevating the charge against fired Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin to second-degree murder. Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, killing him. For the last three of those minutes, Floyd, who was handcuffed, was unresponsive. Ellison also announced he was charging the other three officers involved with Floyd’s death with aiding and abetting murder. Communities of color, already reeling from the disproportionate impacts they are suffering from the coronavirus, exploded in mass protest. George Floyd’s murder, in the crucible of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and police brutality, sparked a diverse rebellion against the scourge of systemic racism.
Many the world over have seen the video of George Floyd’s murder. Little, though, is known about the life of this 46-year-old African American man. George Floyd will be celebrated with memorial services this week and a funeral in Houston on Tuesday.
George Perry Floyd, a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was raised in Houston’s historically black Third Ward. He had two adult children, Connie and Quincy Mason, and a 6-year-old daughter, Gianna. He moved from Houston to Minneapolis several years ago, and worked security at the Conga Latina Bistro, losing his job recently as a result of the pandemic.
In an undated post on social media, George Floyd, who worked as a mentor to young people, condemned gun violence: “I got my shortcomings and my flaws, and I ain’t better than nobody else. But, man, the shootings that’s going on, I don’t care what religion you’re from or where you’re at. I love you, and God loves you. Put them guns down.”
Floyd’s anti-gun activism attracted the attention of two Houstonians, hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Corey Paul and Pastor Patrick “P.T.” Ngwolo, who were looking for contacts in the Third Ward for their social justice religious outreach. “We were extremely fortunate to meet George,” Corey Paul said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “George was already preaching peace, love, God, unity, advocating against gun violence…before we showed up. So, when we got there, George basically said, ‘If it’s God business, then it’s my business.’”
Pastor Ngwolo added, on Democracy Now!, “Big Floyd was one of the first people to help us, as a person of peace, to open up the neighborhood, let people know that we’re OK.” Big Floyd’s death will have enduring impacts in the community he worked in, Corey Paul noted: “George can’t simply be replaced. The neighborhoods that are spoken about oftentimes that need so much radical reformation, you can’t just drop in people or information for change. It has to be from a genuine, holistic place. And that’s what George represented.”
One of the many photos of George Floyd posted by his friends online shows him with a group at an outdoor baptism. “Big Floyd,” 6’4” tall, holds a bible aloft above the heads of the others. The image, juxtaposed with the photo of President Donald Trump orchestrated by the White House this week, exposes the chasm between Floyd’s genuine faith and activism and Trump’s naked propaganda.
Washington, DC has been the scene of some of the most vigorous of the protests against Floyd’s murder. Day and night, protesters filled Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. The Secret Service ushered Trump into the White House bunker on Friday night as the protest grew in size and energy. On Monday, federal agents, reportedly on Attorney General William Barr’s orders, aggressively cleared the park. Riot police blanketed the massive crowd of peaceful protesters with tear gas, then charged, brandishing shields, beating people, firing rubber-coated steel ball bullets and pepper spraying wantonly. With the park cleared, Trump and his entourage, including the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marched to the nearby boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Trump hoisted a bible for a photo op, without opening the book or citing any verse. The hollow stunt and the police violence that preceded it were condemned widely by clergy, elected officials, and members of the public.
Pastor Ngwolo commented, “Had he opened it [the Bible], he would see that our country needs him to bring down the rhetoric, to bring people together, and, hopefully, bring this to a peaceful resolution.”
The paroxysm of protest, the torrent of outrage over the police killing of George Floyd will not be silenced. A full investigation and vigorous prosecution of the four fired officers will bring some measure of justice. But the fire George Floyd lit with his dying words, “I can’t breathe,” will burn until the plague of racism is purged from our body politic.