An American Tragedy: Nation Seeks a Way Forward in the Wake of George Floyd's Death
"Us standing up now, is to protect our kids in the future," says a friend of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis police custody
"I can't breathe" sounded a too-familiar refrain in the death of a black man in police custody.
Captured on video May 25, George Floyd lay on the pavement of a Minneapolis street while the knee of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, dug into his neck. In the eight minutes and 46 seconds that Chauvin applied his weight, according to a charging document, Floyd stopped breathing and died.
The next day, Chauvin and three officers with him on the scene were fired. Three days after that, the local prosecutor charged Chauvin with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
In between, and in the immediate aftermath, a nation's outrage built with increasing intensity. But the killing of Floyd — in the process of his arrest for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill — was not its sole focus.
On March 13, Breonna Taylor, 26, an EMT and emergency technician, was killed in her Louisville, Ky., apartment when police served a "no-knock" warrant and shot her when her boyfriend fired his own permitted weapon fearing for his life. And on Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was out jogging when he was killed by white men who said they suspected him of burglary near their home in Glynn County, Georgia.
Floyd's death in their wake helped push America's long-simmering racial tensions to a boil. Expressing fear, despair and anger, protestors of all ages and races took to the streets of Minneapolis and more than 100 other cities. Peaceful marchers were joined in some places by police themselves, who paused to take a knee or join them in conversation.
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But many mass gatherings quickly yielded to violence. Buildings were vandalized and looted. Police cars were set on fire, and flames burned on the block in front of the White House. Instances of police violence, and violence towards police, were captured on social media. Curfews were put in place in at least 40 cities and National Guard officers were deployed to restore order in at least 21 states.
As the nation watched the chaos and wondered aloud how — and whether — it could effect needed change, those who knew "Big Floyd" remembered a 6-foot 6-inch "gentle giant" who'd made his way to Minneapolis after spending most of his life in Houston, where he left a legacy as a high school athlete and a mentor to others growing up around him in the city's lower-income Third Ward.
The man they mourned was someone who "was already talking to the kids about going to school, staying out of trouble, putting the guns down," a friend, Corey Paul, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. The two met and bonded through Paul's work with Resurrection Houston church. "He was what we call our 'person of peace,'" Paul says.
"George would always try to find a way to make the best of the situations," says a longtime friend, rapper Trae Tha Truth. "A lot of times with us coming from the streets, he would be one of the ones saying, 'Hey, naw, this ain't the way to go about it. This is not cool.' A lot of the younger ones from his side looked at him as O.G. status, somebody they would actually respect and listen to."
"It's heartbreaking for this situation to occur," he says. "One thing I know: He would stand up if it would happen one of us. Us standing up now, is to protect our kids in the future."
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
•Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
•ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
•National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.