His name is chanted by demonstrators around the globe. His face is displayed on murals all over the United States. Since his brutal death George Floyd has embodied, more than any other, the Black victims of police violence and racism in the United States.
“Daddy changed the world.” The words of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna summed up the paradox of his killing, in which the end of his life began a moral reckoning on race and white supremacy far beyond the borders of the United States.
The 46-year-old died of asphyxiation beneath the knee of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, on May 25, 2020 in the US city of Minneapolis.
Chauvin’s trial opens Monday.
The horrifying killing, which kicked off the biggest civil rights protests in the US since the 1960s, snuffed out a life marked by hardship but also generosity.
Standing at six foot four inches (1.93 meters), Floyd was known to friends and family as a “gentle giant,” a rapper and athlete who suffered runs-in with the law and addiction but who wanted the best for his children.
His mother, for whom he cried out when he was dying, moved to Houston shortly after he was born in 1973 in North Carolina.
He grew up in the Third Ward, a poor and predominantly African American neighborhood in central Houston.
“We didn’t have a whole lot, but we always had each other,” his cousin Shareeduh Tate said during a memorial gathering last year in Minneapolis.
At Jake Yates High School, he played the role of big brother to a lot of the local boys.
“He was teaching us how to be a man because he was in the world already before us,” said his younger brother Philonise at the memorial.
Floyd stood out on the football field and excelled at basketball, playing the latter sport when he went to college.
“He was a monster on the court,” said Philonese. “But in life, in general, talking to people, a gentle giant.”
‘Way with words’
He dropped out of college and came back to Houston to help out his family.
In the 1990s, he threw himself into Houston’s hip-hop circuit under the name of “Big Floyd,” where he enjoyed some success.
But he could not escape the violence of Houston’s underground scene, and was arrested several times for thefts and drug dealing. Local media said he was jailed in the early 2000s for armed burglary, serving four years.
After prison, he turned to religion and fell in with the pastor of a church in the Third Ward, using his notoriety and his love of basketball star Lebron James to draw in young men to the ministry, where he taught them religion and coached them in basketball.
“He was powerful, he had a way with words,” said Philonese.
Floyd moved to Minneapolis in 2014 for a “change of scenery” and to look for more stable employment to help support the mother of his newborn daughter Gianna.
He worked as a truck driver for the Salvation Army and then as a bouncer at a bar, a job he lost when the city’s restaurants shut down because of the pandemic.
“I got my shortcomings and my flaws, and I ain’t better than nobody else,” Floyd wrote on Instagram in 2017.
“But, man, the shootings that’s going on, man, I don’t care what religion you’re from, man, or where you’re at, man. I love you, and God love you, man. Put them guns down, man.”
On May 25, Floyd bought a packet of cigarettes from a shop in Minneapolis. The shopkeeper suspected him of using a counterfeit $20 bill, and phoned the police.
Floyd — who had taken fentanyl, a powerful opiate — resisted his arrest.
He did not use violence, but he soon found himself handcuffed and pinned beneath Chauvin’s knee anyway.
In footage of his killing, filmed by horrified bystanders and later sent around the world, he can be heard begging for his mother and for relief. His final words were “I can’t breathe.”
He was buried in June in Houston, next to his mother Larcenia, who died in 2018 and whose nickname “Cissy” he had tattooed on his chest.
Residents of the Third Ward in Houston, where he grew up, have paid their respects with multiple murals.
One, painted on the red brick wall of the social housing block where Floyd grew up, shows “Big Floyd” with angel’s wings and a halo around his head.