A man walking past a mural commemorating the life and death of George Floyd in his home town of Houston, Texas on June 8,2020
Houston (AFP) - Mallory Jackson first met George Floyd in a high school English class in Houston's Third Ward. He remembers him as great at sports, funny and kind. Jackson has not eaten or slept much since watching images of his old friend dying under a policeman's knee.
"You see a friend of yours on TV for all the wrong reasons and you know you won't be able to see him anymore. It's kind of sickening," said Jackson, 44, wearing a red tee shirt emblazoned with Floyd's name and his final words, "I can't breathe."
Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25 has sparked protests nationwide and beyond, grew up in the Texan city, where he was known in his mostly black neighborhood for his athletic prowess and for looking out for younger kids.
The two met for the first time in an English class in middle school, where they spontaneously started making music together.
"We were making beats in class and whatnot and I was banging on the desk and he started freestyling and I stopped and he was like 'No, no, pick the beat back up and I started beating it,'" recalled Jackson.
Standing in the yard of Jack Yates High School, where they studied together, he remembered Floyd as a "jokester" with a towering physical presence, which he said he used to protect the younger boys rather than intimidate them.
"He was always in that big brother role," said Jackson.
"He loved Third Ward. And he wanted better for Third Ward," he said. "He even left here because he wanted a better opportunity so he can show others that, hey, I can leave and make it you know, you can do it too. You don't have to just sit in one spot."
In 2015, the Third Ward was 60 percent African American, compared to 23 percent for the rest of the city, according to the latest census figures.
In the past week, crowds have been gathering at the school to pay their respects to Floyd's memory: a mural has been painted close to the small, red-brick buildings. Flanked by angel wings, an epitaph reads "Forever breathing in our hearts."
- Equal treatment -
For Redick Edwards IV, who got to know Floyd on the basketball court in the summer before high school, the other boy's size and speed were remarkable.
"I admired his style of play, you know, to be that tall and able to be that agile and definitely a great athlete," he said of his childhood friend, who was two years older than him and encouraged in him the confidence he needed to play better.
Edwards learned of the death of his old friend on the television news while he was eating dinner with his own nine-year-old son.
"My son was like: 'Why is he doing that to him if he's already handcuffed and on the ground?'"
Edwards, a hospital dialysis technician who is also an actor, said he now feels "angry" and "hurt."
Yet he also said it was "pretty amazing for somebody who came from humble beginnings ... now having a world of people knowing his name and knowing the injustice that he suffered."
He marveled at the fact that "one person has sparked so much conversation and unity amongst people."
"I'm grieving," he said. "But I'm not going to allow a negative emotion to hijack the bigger picture of what's needed now in the aftermath of his agonizing and brutal death."
It was the ideal of equal justice for all people that motivated Floyd as early as the second grade, recalled one of his first teachers, Waynel Sexton.
She found in her files a short text with drawings that Floyd created when he was around seven, inspired by Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court. The young Floyd also aspired at the time to be a member of the country's top legal body.
"'When people say, 'Your Honor, he did rob the bank,' I will say, 'Be seated'. And if he doesn't, I will tell the guard to take him out. Then I will beat my hammer on the desk, then everybody will be quiet,'" she read from Floyd's assignment for Black History Month.