George Floyd, a life

His Name Is George Floyd book
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His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice
By Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
Bantam Press, May 2022
432 pages

I participated in the popular uprising for racial justice in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by a white Minneapolis cop on May 25 that year.

The cold-blooded assassination of this typical Black man sparked a massive national and international response — the largest ever in the United States.

I thought I knew his story — how Floyd died, where he came from and how he lived. But this new book goes much deeper into his early life and places him in the context of the US’ racial history, going back to slavery, emancipation and legal segregation and the white backlash that persists.

Authors Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa begin with the well-known events of the case. In the opening pages, titled “Flowers”, they write: “As a young man, Perry, as his family called him, had outside aspirations — to become a Supreme Court justice, a pro athlete, or a rap star. By the time his world came crashing down in the months before his death, he had been chasing more modest ambitions — a little stability, a job driving trucks, health insurance. Still, in his dying seconds, as he suffocated under a white police officer’s knee, Floyd managed to speak his love.

“‘Mama, I love you!’ he screamed from the pavement where his cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ were met with an indifference as deadly as hate.

“‘Reese, I love you!’ he yelled, a reference to his friend Maurice Hall, who was with him when he was handcuffed that Memorial Day evening.

“‘Tell my kids I love them!’

“These words marked an end of life in which Floyd repeatedly found his dreams diminished, deferred, and derailed — in no small part because of the color of his skin.”

The death of a Black man in the racist US at the hands of a cop occurs every week, some place in the country. Police officers — whether white, Black, Asian or Latino — follow the institutional rules.

All a cop must say to justify a shooting is: “It was an act of self-defense.” It doesn’t matter if the Black victim was unarmed, mentally ill or walking down the street.

Research

Samuels and Olorunnipa conducted more than 400 interviews and had access to the Washington Post’s extensive files on race and journalists who covered the events of 2020 and since.

Both reporters are Black men who know racism first hand.

Olorunnipa is the WP’s White House Bureau chief and of Nigerian descent. Samuels was born in the Bronx, New York, and is a national reporter who graduated from Northwestern University.

They interviewed Floyd’s friends and family. Nothing was left out — the good, bad and the scars of Floyd’s life.

They, like the country, learned of the murder when a young Black female bystander, Darnella Frazier, posted her live phone video online. It showed Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he was dead. It showed three other cops standing by, with one holding Floyd down.

The story is told in three parts. The first, “Perry”, discusses who Floyd was up to his Memorial Day murder. The second talks about his life in Texas and family. The third part, “Say His Name”, is about the popular uprising that followed his death and the push for justice in the courts and Congress.

The first chapter describes in detail what that May 25 was like for Floyd. I had wondered why he was at that community store and did not drive away. It turns out he regularly shopped there and was known by the owner and employees.

So why were the police called by the store about an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill? Why did Floyd stay outside the store, across the street, after a store employee asked him to take back the bill and pay for his cigarettes again?

The four ex-cops (now serving time in prison) knew nothing about Floyd or what he was up to. He was simply a Black man sitting in a car with a friend. They saw him, as the authors explain: “He was young, poor, and Black in America — a recipe for irrelevance in a society that tended to push lads like him to the outskirts ... However, he assured everyone around him that someday he would make a lasting impact.”

The Minneapolis police blamed the victim for his death. It gave a false justification of the murder — as police always do. But the pressure of the immediate public protests forced the dismissal and prosecution of the cops and Chauvin’s jury conviction.

The authors detail the testimonies at the trial using transcripts and first hand reports. Floyd’s background is important, they write, to understand how typical Black men are killed by police with few ever forced to pay a price.

Background

Floyd struggled with substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, and criminal activities as an adult. He served time in prison.

He grew up in a trailer park in North Carolina and as a teenager his mother moved the family to Houston’s Third Ward seeking a better life. Segregation and racism followed the family. Their housing project was 99% Black. They continued to live in poverty.

“To help the world understand Perry as they saw him,” the authors obtained haircuts from his barbers, visited the areas he called home, and spoke with his extended family, friends, associates and former lovers.

Floyd, 193cm, was a big man, a star football player in high school but not good enough to get into professional sports. He was a loving brother and son. He was respected by his community.

He was poor, had little access to health care, and started using drugs and became a trader. He was not the hardest worker.

He sought to get out of that life and improve himself. He had many friends to help him. It’s why he moved to Minneapolis in 2014 where he had a relative.

Floyd was a victim of the “War on Drugs” pushed by Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton against the Black community. That racist war helps explain why police feel free to murder Black men or imprison them.

African Americans were the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Floyd suffered the same fate as millions of people during the coronavirus crisis: He was out of work and looking for a new job in 2020.

Family and community

As I read this personal story, I felt a certain joy in how the authors were able to show in a positive light how a poor family and community lived, breathed and functioned as human beings.

My mother’s family grew up in Detroit’s “Black Bottom” that no longer exists. Samuels and Olorunnipa show the warmth of the family and neighbours — not unusual for Black families living in large cities like Houston, Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere.

We all know the saying: “You can’t let the racism keep you down.” Floyd did that as best he could. He was a living, breathing human being with flaws and desires.

He was normal. More than a victim of police terror and death, he was real.

The authors tell the story of Floyd’s ancestry, looking back over 300 years of US history. What emerges is the clearest possible case for the justice and urgency of reparations.

Floyd’s great-great-grandfather had been born a slave. During Reconstruction in the late 1800s he owned 500 acres of land (only 2% of white farmers had the same amount of land) in North Carolina.

What should have been multi-generational Black wealth was stolen from him and his descendants in the white post-Reconstruction terror and the rise of Jim Crow segregation, when African Americans became third-class citizens.

Movement for Black lives

I see one major omission in the book: It does not adequately discuss the leadership role of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the fight for racial justice.

The Floyd family participated in the protests and their voices are strongly presented. Yet the key to arresting and prosecuting the four cops was the popular uprising in Minneapolis and nationally.

This was the biggest protest movement ever in the country, both spontaneous and with new local and national leaders who remain active.

Many of these leaders demanded radical reforms of policing; some called for defunding and transferring those resources to community groups. Others called for abolishing the police force as it exists and starting over, combined with calls to abolish the prison industrial complex.

The authors describe the protests in Minneapolis and around the world (from New Zealand and Australia to Britain and France). They note the power of that movement, but don’t indicate an opinion — either positive or critical — about what it represents beyond the moment.

They present the BLM movement largely as slogans: “Black Lives Matter! No Justice! No Peace! Say His Name!” but don’t go into the movement’s longer-term potential. Could it become a powerful political challenge to the criminal system itself?

More is written about the leadership role of one of the lawyers for the family, Ben Crump, who represents many families of slain Black men and women around the country, and civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. And of course, there’s the role of Keith Ellison, the first Black Minnesota attorney general.

Emerging leadership

Who were the militant activists and leaders of the grassroots movement? The implication is that the diversity of protesters was only because of agreement on the demand “Justice for George Floyd”, not the broader criminality of the policing and carceral justice system.

The BLM leaders, for the most part, understood the link between the two — and how reliance on electoral politics could be a diversion or even undermine the protests, in the absence of an independent political party fighting for freedom and racial justice.

That’s what occurred — not for the first time — during the 2020 presidential election, when the main Black Democratic Party officeholders told activists to focus on the elections.

While most Democratic presidential candidates expressed support for the protests and BLM, the eventual nominee, Joe Biden, did not. He made clear his call to “fund the police”.

As president, Biden has indeed pushed for massively increased police funding.

It is not a surprise there is growing disillusionment with Biden and the Democrats. In the 2022 midterm elections, Black voting went down in major urban areas, even though most Black people continue to vote because the issue is seen as self-preservation in a racist country.

Donald Trump-supporting Republicans are rightly seen as a threat to Black survival. The fundamental political problem is that there is no independent political party for the nationally oppressed or the working class as a whole.

After the civil rights victory in the 1960s that won voting rights and ended legal segregation, there was some discussion about building an independent Black political party, but it didn’t take root.

It is no surprise that the mass protests after Floyd’s murder declined after Biden’s election with his promises of police reform. He met with members of the Floyd family, knowing that the Senate would never pass police reform legislation.

Who’s innocent and who’s guilty

While Floyd could not speak for himself, his family, friends, and the police made clear who was innocent and why the police officers were guilty.

The story of the US’ systemic racism does come through convincingly. As the authors write, Floyd’s case “did not eliminate institutional racism in America”. It did make the country understand it better.

The racist backlash by Republican and white supremacists defending the “Blue” was classic. They brought up lies about “Woke-ness”, Critical Race Theory, the history of slavery, the 1619 Project, and demonised the BLM leaders and movement.

The rise of Trumpism, and the transformation by the far right of the Republican Party, show how quickly a white backlash can reverse gains and lead to setbacks. The struggle, as every Black person knows, is long and hard.

The potential of a powerful multi-racial and ethnic coalition to stand with Black people is the main lesson of the BLM movement.

Partial justice done

As the authors document, Floyd, in one sense, died long before that May 25 day — a slow death from living in the US. Some 300 years of racist treatment made Chauvin assume, as he had done before, he would get away with his brutality.

Yet the authors decided not to put the US on trial, even with the facts to do so. Maybe that’s why the BLM and anti-racist leaders are not given their proper due.

The authors hope that a new day of racial justice will come as a lesson of Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s conviction.

Politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Black elected officials, have the same expectation. They had hoped for that future end of racial injustice after the first Black president Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

Black men, however, continue to be murdered by police.

Nevertheless, a certain victory was won in Minnesota. Chauvin received 20 years in prison. The ruling class understood that someone had to pay to show the world that “bad” police are sometimes prosecuted.

The other former cops also received shorter prison time for not stopping Chauvin. J Alexander Kueng was sentenced to three years and Tou Thao to three and a half years. Thomas Lane, who held Floyd down, pled guilty to a charge of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to three years.

Was justice done? No one really believes so. Floyd is still dead. Few police ever face a jury. But it is important that four cops are in prison.

Finally, I urge readers to closely read the book’s extensive notes on pages 391–411, which include links to articles and more detailed information.

His Name Is George Floyd is an important contribution to the story of African Americans. A typical Black man’s life became a symbol of why the fightback epitomised by the BLM movement is essential to learning the truth about police and state violence, and why popular uprisings are key to standing up to systemic racism.

[A version of this article appears in Against The Current, where Malik Miah is an advisory editor.]