- Toluse Olorunnipaauthor and national political enterprise reporter at The Washington Post.
- Robert Samuelsauthor and national political enterprise reporter at The Washington Post.
This week marks the second anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd. We speak with Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, who have just published an in-depth new book, “His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” that tells the story of structural racism in the U.S. through Floyd’s own story. “This is an American story. It shows how American poverty works, how American wealth works, and George Floyd was on the wrong side of the line because of the color of his skin,” says Olorunnipa. “He was living in a world where he was trying to get better, but there weren’t a lot of supports to do it,” says Samuels. “It’s important for us not to leave behind the millions of other George Floyds that are operating in silence, not getting the same attention, and who are experiencing some of the same struggles and troubles that he did during his life.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
This week marks the second anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd. Nine minutes and 29 seconds, that’s how long Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck on Memorial Day 2020. Floyd was handcuffed face-down on the pavement, not resisting, as he gasped for air, begging for his life. A teenager named Darnella Frazier recorded cellphone video of their actions and helped spark global protests demanding justice.
Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison for murdering George Floyd. Three other former Minneapolis police officers were found guilty of violating Floyd’s civil rights as they ignored his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe.”
Today we remember George Floyd, the man himself and his impact. He died in Minneapolis, but he spent much of his life in Houston, Texas, where he’s remembered for his efforts to break the cycle of violence in his community by mentoring young men. This social media post from George Floyd, in his own words, captures the type of outreach he did.
GEORGE FLOYD: I want to speak to y’all real quick. I just want to say, man, that I got my shortcomings and my flaws, and I ain’t better than nobody else. But, man, the shootings that’s going on, man, I don’t care what hood you’re from, man, or where you’re at, man. I love you, and God love you, man. Put them guns down, man. That ain’t what it is, you know. God bless, man, and y’all holy out here, though, man. You got parents out here selling plates, man, trying to bury their kids, man. Think about it, man. Love y’all.
AMY GOODMAN: “Love y’all,” or “I love you.” George Floyd in his own words, repeated those words over and over as a greeting, as a goodbye. After his killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, there were protests worldwide and in all 50 states. In Houston, more than 60,000 people honored George Floyd. Mayor Sylvester Turner addressed the march.
MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Today is about lifting up the family of George Floyd. Say his name.
PROTESTERS: George Floyd!
MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: Say his name.
PROTESTERS: George Floyd!
MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: It’s about lifting up the name of George Floyd.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by the co-authors of a new book titled His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa are reporters for The Washington Post whose deeply researched book tells both Floyd’s own story, as well as the history of the United States through this one man, who said, since he was a boy, he hoped to touch the world. The book also addresses slavery, housing, education, healthcare and, of course, police violence.
Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! What an astounding journey you take us on. This is also simply a history book of institutionalized racism in the United States. Toluse, I was wondering if you can begin in North Carolina, because that’s where George Floyd was born. But you don’t start with George, or, as his family called him, Perry’s birth; you go back to slavery times, to George Floyd’s family enslaved in this country.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. And it’s so great to be with you.
And I’m glad you started with that question, because in order to tell George Floyd’s story, we needed to rewind the tape to the 19th century. George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather was born enslaved. That’s how far back the records go in terms of what we were able to find. And his great-great-grandfather was born enslaved but received his freedom after the Civil War. And he was someone who was hard-working. He worked incredibly hard in this country, and he was able to amass 500 acres of land in the late 19th century as a Black man. And that is something that was almost unheard of. It made him one of the most wealthiest Black men in that stretch of North Carolina.
And if this was a normal story, George Floyd would have been the heir to that fortune. He would have been — he would have come into the world quite wealthy as a result of the generational wealth that passed down. That’s how wealth is built in this country. That’s how many people came into the world wealthy, because of their hard-working ancestors. But, unfortunately, George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather had all of his land taken from him through fraudulent tax schemes and unscrupulous business deals by white farmers and white landowners who wanted to take advantage of him and didn’t like the fact that there was a wealthy Black man going around their community. This was a time of racial terror in the country at the turn of the century, around the time of the Tulsa race riots and a number of different things happening, and George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather lost all of his land, and he was unable to pass any of that land down. And what did that do to the rest of George Floyd’s ancestry? It meant the next couple of generations, before George Floyd came to scene, were made up of sharecroppers who lived in poverty despite working hard for years and years and years. And George Floyd was not able to inherit any of the benefits of the hard work of his ancestors the way many people have been able to benefit from the hard work that’s built up over generations.
So this is an American story. It shows how American poverty works, how American wealth works. And George Floyd was on the wrong side of the line because of the color of his skin, because of the color of the skin of his ancestors. And it was important for us to show that. We also did a comparative analysis of the family that owned and abused Floyd’s ancestors, and showed how they were able to build wealth. They were able to be quite wealthy and pass down generational wealth. And that really explains how, even though people say slavery was a long time ago, it still has reverberations and impacts on the 21st century.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Samuels, this is a profound book that everyone in this country needs to read. I mean, ultimately, it also goes to the issue today of reparations and what this would mean. But I’m wondering, the two of you, as Black reporters looking at the life and death of this Black man — again, we all knew immediately about George Floyd’s death; we did not know about his life. Talk about taking on this project, investigating George Floyd, and what you identified with and what you didn’t, the different paths you all took.
ROBERT SAMUELS: Well, Amy, I’ll tell you, this is the most important and consequential thing I’ve done as a journalist. And Tolu and I, you know, we have, combined, 30 years of reportorial experience. And the reason I thought it was important is that I learned over the course of doing this writing and reporting that the idea of systemic racism — I used to think of it as a dark cloud that just hung over us, a stain in the fabric of America. But it’s something far more terrifying. When I was with these families and these people watching the trial of Derek Chauvin, not knowing how it would turn out, it started to feel like a force, a pernicious force, that was threatening everybody — Black, white.
And we thought by digging into the story of Floyd’s family, learning about George Floyd, who was a striver despite his own mistakes and despite having an American society that always looked on him as a threat — often looked on him as a threat — he still believed in the promise of this country. And we wanted to be able to show readers about the cards that are stacked against people like George Floyd. And, you know, it was a personal thing, because people saw us, and they saw two Black men carrying the story. But because we are two Black men, we understood a lot of the things that they were talking about, emotionally. What we wanted to — what we hoped for is that people would understand not just the emotions but the history and be moved to move and think about these ideas in different ways.
AMY GOODMAN: Tolu, you have George Floyd’s family — he is named for his father, George Floyd — moving from North Carolina to Houston. And then you show the systemic, the institutional, the structural racism of what he enters when his family — when he ultimately grows up in Cuney Homes, the largest housing project, and, you know, overwhelmingly African American, in Houston. If you can lay that out for us? And I can’t help but think, as I was reading your book this weekend, how many school districts might ban this book because you’re directly addressing structural racism in this country.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. We are journalists, and we wanted to tell the full story, including the story of structural racism, which was a part of George Floyd’s life, inarguably. It was clear that Floyd moved into a housing project that had been created specifically to house Black people during the late 1930s. It was during the time of segregation that this housing project was created. And it was allowed to fall into disrepair in part because its residents were 99% Black. And over those four decades before George Floyd moved there, that housing project became this sand trap of poverty, where most of the people living there were below the poverty line, where the government had essentially given up on this large housing project, and it was riddled with crime and all kinds of problems that made it a place that was hard to inhabit. It was a place that was hard for George Floyd and his family to live and have a normal lifestyle and have a normal childhood. And when you’re growing up in that kind of community where you feel that government neglect, it’s hard for you to have ambitions and to have dreams.
Now, George Floyd did still have dreams as an 8-year-old. And we spoke to his second grade teacher. We knew that he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. We knew that he was meeting all of his national benchmarks on reading and writing and math, despite his impoverished background, despite the fact that most of his peers were falling behind. He was someone who was able to catch up and, at least for a brief period, was able to show that he had that potential. Now, when you continue to live in that kind of community, when you continue to go to underfunded, segregated schools, it’s going to be hard for you to continue to maintain grade level. And that’s what happened to George Floyd, especially as he got taller and as he got bigger. People looked at him and said, “This school thing is not going to quite work for you, because the schools that you’re in are not well funded. They don’t have the resources to get you out of here. But you have a body that can get you out of this community. It can take you to great wealth, if you condition that body and if you work on sports, if you go to the football field.” And that’s the story that he was told. That’s what, as a child, he bought into, and he did focus on sports.
And there was a time where it looked like he was on his way to great sports stardom. But, unfortunately, because his education wasn’t strong enough, he wasn’t able to capitalize on his body, and he wasn’t able to capitalize on his athleticism. And he found himself going back to the Cuney Homes housing project, where he didn’t have a college degree, he didn’t have any income, he didn’t have a job. And then, the next thing waiting for him was the criminal justice system, which was tailored to target people like him, who look like him, who came from the backgrounds that he came from. And lo and behold, he ended up cycling through that system for much of his life.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, even as a young person, though he was extremely tall, he actually tried to compensate, you write, for looking in any way ominous, and that took away from him being an effective athlete, you know, as an aggressive football player. They felt he wasn’t aggressive enough. He was always trying to reassure people that he was not threatening, Tolu.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. He would walk into a room and shake everyone by the hand and look everyone in the eye. And he told his brother — because his brother asked, “Why do you always do that? Why do you go into a room like that?” And he said, “I can’t go into a room the way you do, because people will be intimidated because of my size. I have to put them at ease.” That’s why he went around saying, “I love you,” in part, because he wanted to make sure people felt comfortable around him.
And yes, on the football field, he was a jokester, and he was somebody who coaches tried to toughen up, because they realized that he was big, but he didn’t have this aggressive, domineering personality, wasn’t the kind of person that would try to exploit others because they were smaller.
And so, that was always part of his personality. And that’s why it was so tragic, in some ways, for the people who knew him, to know that the police officers that killed him saw him as this big, intimidating force, this person that was going to show excited delirium, that was going to rise up from the ground and start menacing them and menacing other people in the public. That wasn’t his nature. And even while he was being arrested, he said, “I’m not that kind of guy.” And part of that was because he knew his body put forward a certain stereotype, and he wanted the police officers to know he was not the kind of guy that they stereotyped him as.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Philonise Floyd, his brother, named for his father — they shared the same mother — when he was joining protests to demand justice and calling on lawmakers to take action. This was less than a month after his brother’s murder, and Philonise traveled to Washington, D.C., to address the House Judiciary Committee in person.
PHILONISE FLOYD: George always made sacrifices for our family, and he made sacrifices for complete strangers. He gave the little that he had to help others. He was our gentle giant. I was reminded of that when I watched the video of his murder. He called all the officers “sir.” He was mild-mannered. He didn’t fight back. He listened to all the officers. The man who took his life, who suffocated him for eight minutes and 46 seconds, he still called him “sir,” as he begged for his life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Perry — that’s George Floyd’s brother Philonise testifying before Congress. If you can talk about his encounter with the criminal justice system? You also, through it, tell the story of private prisons, as well, being held at Hutto. Many in Texas know the Hutto prison. And actually, Hutto was named for the man who would found — am I right? — the Corrections Corporation of America, CCA?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. I can jump in there, as well. We wanted to show how these systems operate. It’s not happening in a vacuum, that millions of men, including hundreds of thousands of men that look like George Floyd, were swept into the criminal justice system. There was also a profit motive for some of the for-profit prisons that benefited from the mass incarceration system. They benefited from the idea that you would lock up as many people as possible, spend as little as possible doing so, and there’s a profit that can be made there. And it goes back to the history of convict leasing. It goes back to the history of slavery. And we draw that link between what was happening in the 1800s and what is happening in the 20th and the 21st century.
And George Floyd got caught up in that. And even as he agonized over his mistakes, and he talked about feeling sorry for the decisions that he made, that some of them led him to having a criminal record, he also felt that he didn’t get a fair shake. He had to plead guilty in all of his cases. He never faced a jury of his peers, because he couldn’t afford a lawyer, and he felt that, looking the way he did, he would never get a fair shot at trial. So he always plead guilty, even when, in some cases, he told his friends, “I didn’t do this.” And some of the police officers that charged him were later charged with falsifying arrest on lots of people and charged with falsifying the arrest of George Floyd himself. So, he was caught up in that system, and there were people making money off of that system. And America decided to continue to enforce that system as our incarceration rate shot up to becoming the highest in the world by far, and millions of people ended up being locked up behind bars, including several for nonviolent drug crimes, in a scheme that we are just now trying to unravel.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking to Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, the co-authors of His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, on this second anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which takes us to Robert. From Houston to Minneapolis, he goes. He had been arrested for and imprisoned for selling drugs. He also used drugs. And it was this cycle of drug use that he was constantly trying to break, that his family was trying to get him to break. He would also try to break the drug use of members of his family. Take us to Minneapolis and what he hoped for, going there not to sell drugs, not to take drugs, but to try to start life again.
ROBERT SAMUELS: Right. Well, George Floyd, when he was in Houston and when he was incarcerated in Texas, they had moved from thinking about having safe beds to help rehabilitate folks with drug dependency. And when he comes out of prison, he’s looking for a job. He can’t get one because of his record. You can’t have something — you can’t even have many professional licenses. You can’t become a barber in Texas at the time if you had a felony. And also he had no health insurance, because Texas had decided not to expand insurance after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
So, George Floyd, he becomes a part of a group of men, who are led by a pastor, who try to rehabilitate themselves, who try to find a way to get clean. And the pastor tells him that if you want this for yourself and your family, there is a place in Minnesota. And so he goes to a center, a rehabilitation center, to be able to get his life back into order. And when he comes out, he is clean. He’s sober. He’s working. He’s working two jobs. He finds a house in a nice part, in a suburb near — overlooking sparkling waters. And things are going pretty well for him.
But one of the things, Amy, is that there are things that, as a Black man living in America, you can’t escape. And the residue of that racism that you had lived with all your life continues to haunt you. And so, one of the things that happens in Minneapolis is his roommate, who was in rehab with him, he dies of a drug overdose, which puts George Floyd in a dark place. And we go through the minutiae of that in the book. But he’s in a system where if you’re white and you are living in a suburb, there was a lot of interest in helping to rehabilitate you. The federal government put billions of dollars into treatment and education and research about the opioid crisis when it hit white suburban communities. But if you’re Black — and the state health department acknowledged it — they completely missed the alarming rise of use of opioids within Black communities, to the point where they started — the rates started becoming higher than whites. And a part of that has to do with the way we were thinking about drugs at the time. It is true that when they passed the crime bill in the 1990s, there was money dedicated to research and funding and education for Black communities. But when we looked at the records and when we went through the registrar, that money was never sent from the federal government.
And so, he was living in a world where he was trying to get better, but there weren’t a lot of supports to do it. And as we know, through everything that we’ve seen, the actual physiology of how a person responds to a substance use addiction does not change, whether you’re Black or white in this country. What changes is how a person is treated. And that’s what happened with George Floyd.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Robert, you do some really interesting investigation into cortisol. People might be, like, shaking their heads: “What are you talking about?” Explain.
ROBERT SAMUELS: Yeah. So, in the early '70s, there was a lot of effort put into thinking about something called “high stress coping,” right? And it was about, maybe if you're working too hard in the middle class, something bad might happen to you. You might get a heart attack. And there was a small group of public health researchers that started positing the questions about the Black body and what stress does to them. And it turns out that no matter your educational status, your socioeconomic status, your income, where you grew up, if you look at stress hormones in Black people — those are things like cortisol, that’s the stuff that triggers the fight-or-flight response — those rates, those stress hormones are at elevated rates.
So, if your stress hormones are elevated for a little bit, it’s not that bad of a thing. It can help you pass a test. It can help you do a feat of strength when you need it. But if they remain high, that raises inflammation in the body. So, that means you’re more susceptible to things like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — two of the three things that George Floyd had.
And the conclusion is that the stress of racism in this country, and in others, can make you sick. And that stress comes with feeling from discrimination, fearing microaggressions, feeling you have to work twice as hard to get by as a white man — you have to work twice as hard — and also the fear for your life, the fear that you might encounter one of the wrong police officers who might kill you one day. Racism can make us sick.
AMY GOODMAN: Which is exactly what happened to George Floyd. I mean, if you go through the men who were killed by police in Minneapolis before Perry, before George Floyd, he was very aware of this and affected by it. One of the things in this book that’s so enraging is the record of Chauvin. I mean, this doesn’t take responsibility from all over the country and police violence, but that, over and over again, he abused people and was never called on it. Explain that record. And I should say we have about five minutes left in this interview, and I really want to get to so many issues here. But the pervasive racism that had to underlie the Minneapolis Police Department for him to have gone after so many people, almost in the same way as he went after George Floyd, and not be called on it.
ROBERT SAMUELS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then train people.
ROBERT SAMUELS: Yeah, yeah. Well, one thing I have to say is, Derek Chauvin’s record as a police officer was not unusual for that precinct in the amount of complaints he got, which is a part of the issue, right? The second thing is that Derek Chauvin himself had a track record of aggressive behavior, that there were complaints. There is no public documentation that anything ever happened with those complaints, including several usages of the neck restraint, suffocating someone. That went on. He had started using that restraint — the first instance we know happens about 18 days after he was trained for it. George Floyd was the ninth person he used that technique on. Now, the interesting thing is, as Derek Chauvin continues to use this technique, it becomes more aggressive. And there’s no record that anyone ever course-corrected him. And it became more aggressive until he actually killed a man. So, one thing that we say is systemic racism corrupts us all. And it has an impact on Black people. It also has an impact on white lives, as well. Derek Chauvin was in a system that made it seem like it might be OK to do this to somebody.
AMY GOODMAN: You spoke to, well, now-Governor Tim Walz, who warned you the momentum to make legislative changes to reduce racial inequality might have expired. As we hit this second anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd, Robert Samuels, what is your sense?
ROBERT SAMUELS: The sense is that if you are a person of color in this country — and we talk about this in the last chapter, where Tim Walz makes that comment — you cannot believe that the future is so bleak, because that would be too bleak. It could cost you your life. And so, we’ve seen some small — we’ve seen some changes on the legislative level, at the state and local level. And now we’re seeing a backlash to it. Books that people were saying everyone should read in 2020 are now the books that are being banned in 2022. And when we talked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson about this, he said to us, “You have to consider the course of history. You have to look at the fact that progress comes in fits and starts, but people keep on moving. And we are moving toward a better place.”
We hope that with this book, once people can realize the context of George Floyd’s life and also remember why so many people took to the streets in the name of a better tomorrow, that they might also start thinking about systemic racism and how people can see folks in a fullness that George — with a fullness and a grace that George Floyd never seemed to fully get.
AMY GOODMAN: Tolu, as we begin to wrap up this interview, you are a Nigerian American journalist, the first reporter of native African and Nigerian descent to cover the White House. You’ve said you felt convicted by Floyd’s story. Explain what you mean, as we wrap up.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, there is a common saying among people of faith: “There but for the grace of God go I.” And that was a refrain that was in my head as I read this story, as I learned about George Floyd, as I wrote this book, in part because I knew that I had received a number of lucky breaks in life that allowed me to have a different pathway than George Floyd. And it was clear that it was important to write this story with empathy, because any of us can experience hardship in life, any of us can experience structural barriers in life; it’s very uncommon for anyone who might be watching this to have experienced the number of hardships and structural barriers that George Floyd did, in part because that’s the way systemic racism works. It operates in the background. It operates behind the scenes. And we wanted to shine a light on those systemic barriers. Even for people who have had better experiences in this country, it’s important for us not to leave behind the millions of other George Floyds that are operating in silence, not getting the same attention, and who are experiencing some of the same struggles and troubles that he did during his life. And I know that, as a Black reporter, it’s important for me to shine a light on those experiences, to make sure that people’s voices are being heard, people’s experiences are being seen. And George Floyd’s experience is one that we hope will get people to understand that we have a lot of work to do as a country. And one of the first things we can do is acknowledge our history, acknowledge our systemic barriers, and see what we can do about fixing and changing a number of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel more or less hopeful when you finished your book, Tolu?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: I have no choice but to feel more hopeful. That’s the story of the Black American experience over the last 400 years. Hope is something that Black Americans have had to have. We’ve had a number of different times where we could have given up on this country. And if Black Americans were ever going to give up, we’ve had plenty of reasons to do so. But I think that hope —
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but I want to thank you so much to both of you, Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels.