Friends Recall George Floyd as a 'Person of Peace' Urging Change Before Fatal Brush with Police
"This man would help you if there was a way he could help you," says a friend of the unarmed man who died in Minneapolis police custody
Before he died under the weight of a pressed knee-to-the-neck from a white Minneapolis police officer, George Floyd served his former community as a "person of peace."
"The police officers don't know that Floyd was on their side, that Floyd was about justice and change," Corey Paul, a friend of the victim, tells PEOPLE. "So they killed someone who was doing what they were supposed to be doing."
The accused -- since-fired police officer Derek Chauvin -- has not yet entered a plea to charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd's May 25 death, which the Hennepin County medical examiner's office labeled a homicide in autopsy findings released Monday.
The death of the unarmed black man while in police custody -- graphically captured on video for 8 minutes and 46 seconds -- has sparked both peaceful and violent mass protests around the country.
The increasingly incendiary response is not what Floyd, 46, would have wanted, according to his family and friends.
In 2010, Paul, then 23, met Floyd, then 36, in the low-income, mostly black Third Ward of Houston, where Paul was helping to organize a concert staged by Resurrection Houston church in the government-run Cuney Homes neighborhood of Floyd's youth.
Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.
"When we came in, Floyd was already a daily representative talking to the kids about going to school, about staying out of trouble, about putting the guns down," says Paul. "Floyd was someone from the community who was loved, who was respected, and he was already advocating for just unity, change, progression. He ushered us, the church, the ministry, everybody in, and we couldn't have done what we did without him."
"This isn't a neighborhood that you can just come in, do whatever you want with no condition," he says. "Floyd gave us his stamp of approval, because he believed in that change. We never had one incident, one problem with anything, because he was that person of peace."
Floyd's life in Minneapolis, where he died during an arrest after allegedly making a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill, continued the evolution that he had begun by distancing himself from the life of the streets in Houston, say his friends.
Evidence of that struggle resurfaced in his autopsy. The initial, much-contested police report states that officers who responded to the "report of a forgery" encountered a suspect who "appeared to be under the influence." In its findings, the medical examiner concluded Floyd died from "cardiopulmonary arrest" complicated by the restraint and neck compression of law enforcement, but with evidence in his system of "fentanyl intoxication" and "recent methamphetamine use."
"He didn't shy away from who he was, what he's been through," says Nijalon Dunn, 26, another Floyd friend from Houston. "But one thing that he highlighted, and was extremely vocal about, was the man that he wanted to be and the man that he was becoming."
"I looked up to him because he was a beacon of change in Third Ward," says Dunn. "Kind-hearted guy who was on the other side of the justice system and trying to make a change, and make sure that younger brothers and sisters in the neighborhood realized that they didn't have to be what they feel like they're being taught to be."
"I would hear him talk to some of the younger guys, teenagers, people in their mid and early 20s. He's like, 'Man, I've been in your shoes before. I understand what it feels like to feel trapped. I understand what it feels like to feel like you only have one or two options.' But just as he empowered me, man, he empowered other people."
Floyd shared his views in Instagram videos. "Man, the shootings that's going on, man, I don't care what 'hood you're from, man, where ya at, man," he said in one. "I love you and God loves you, man. Put them guns down, man."
"This man would help you if there was a way he could help you," says another friend, Cyril White, 45, who came to know Floyd when the two played on opposing high school basketball teams. He later recruited Floyd to join a semi-pro basketball squad called To God Be the Glory Sports Quest, on which Floyd played for two years in his 20s.
"He's just the type of guy that when he came around, everybody automatically started smiling without him even saying anything," says White. "If the cop had chose to stop his actions at any time, George Floyd had the type of heart to forgive that man. You know what I'm saying?"
"You killed him like this, and if you let him up, he's still going to forgive you," he says. "That's how Floyd is."