An athlete, a father, a ‘beautiful spirit’: George Floyd in his friends’ words.
People who knew the man killed in a violent police incident say he was an ‘always cheerful’, ‘gentle giant’ who was laid off when Minnesota shut down.
Before his death beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, George Floyd was suffering the same fate as millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic: out of work and looking for a new job.
Floyd moved to Minneapolis from his native Houston several years ago in hopes of finding work and starting a new life, said Christopher Harris, Floyd’s lifelong friend.
“He was looking to start over fresh, a new beginning,” Harris said. “He was happy with the change he was making.”
As a teen in Texas, he was a football star many nicknamed “gentle giant”.
But he lost his job as a bouncer at a restaurant when Minnesota’s governor issued a stay-at-home order.
On Monday night, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called police after Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. In a video of the subsequent arrest, taken by one of the many members of the public that witnessed the violent event, Floyd, who was black, can be seen on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him while a white officer, Derek Chauvin, presses him to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Chauvin can be seen holding Floyd down for minutes as Floyd complains he can’t breathe, speaking with greater difficulty and then becoming unresponsive, as witnesses beg the officers to release him. The video ends with paramedics lifting a limp Floyd on to a stretcher and placing him in an ambulance.
Floyd, 46, grew up in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, where he and Harris met in middle school. At 6ft6in, Floyd emerged as a star football player, positioned as the tight end for Jack Yates’ high school team, and played in the 1992 state championship game in the Houston Astrodome.
Donnell Cooper, one of Floyd’s former classmates, said he remembered watching Floyd score touchdowns. Floyd towered over everyone and earned the nickname “gentle giant”.
“Quiet personality but a beautiful spirit,” Cooper said.
His life later took a different turn and in 2007 Floyd was charged with armed robbery in a home invasion in Houston and in 2009 was sentenced to five years in prison as part of a plea deal, according to court documents.
Harris, Floyd’s childhood friend, said he and some of their mutual friends had moved to Minneapolis in search of jobs around 2014. Harris said he talked Floyd into moving there as well after he got out of prison. Floyd landed a job working security at a Salvation Army store in downtown Minneapolis. He later started working two jobs, one driving trucks and another as a bouncer at Conga Latin Bistro, where he was known as “Big Floyd”.
“Always cheerful,” Jovanni Tunstrom, the bistro’s owner, said. “He had a good attitude. He would dance badly to make people laugh. I tried to teach him how to dance because he loved Latin music, but I couldn’t because he was too tall for me. He always called me ‘Bossman’. I said, ‘Floyd, don’t call me Bossman. I’m your friend.’”
Harris said Floyd was laid off when Minnesota shut down restaurants as part of a stay-at-home order to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. He said he spoke with Floyd on Sunday night and gave him some information for contacting a temporary job agency.
“He was doing whatever it takes to maintain going forward with his life,” Harris said, adding he couldn’t believe that Floyd would resort to forgery. “I’ve never known him to do anything like that.”
“The way he died was senseless,” Harris said. “He begged for his life. He pleaded for his life. When you try so hard to put faith in this system, a system that you know isn’t designed for you, when you constantly seek justice by lawful means and you can’t get it, you begin to take the law into your own hands.”
Floyd leaves behind a six-year-old daughter who still lives in Houston with her mother.