What do we know about George Floyd and his death?

Andrew Naughtie
A protester prays in front of George Floyd's memorial in Minneapolis: AFP via Getty Images

The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis has resulted in the longest, largest and most violent eruption of protests and riots that’s been seen in the US for half a century. For more than a week, tens of thousands of people have marched in the streets of their cities, often being met by police equipped with tear gas, nightsticks and rubber bullets.

Here’s what we know about Mr Floyd, his death, and what’s transpired since.

Who was George Floyd?

Mr Floyd was a 46-year-old native of Houston, Texas. He moved to Minneapolis two years ago.

He is spoken of fondly by friends from home, who knew him as a “gentle giant” – a humble, athletic man who was well liked. At Yates High School, Floyd had been a star on the football team, and played in the 1992 state championships.

After losing his job and serving a jail sentence for armed robbery, in which he took a plea deal, Floyd helped create a basketball court ministry at housing projects in the neighbourhood and became an anti-gun violence advocate.

In Minneapolis, where he moved for a fresh start, Floyd worked two jobs at one point. The owner of Conga Latin Bistro, where he worked as a bouncer prior to losing work in the coronavirus pandemic, described him as “always cheerful”.

“He had a good attitude,” Jovanni Tunstrom told ABC11. “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.”

A devoted father to his six-year-old daughter, who he had planned to bring out from Houston to Minneapolis, Floyd was also engaged to be married. His fiancee Courteney Ross described him as “nothing but an angel that was sent to us on earth”.

What were the circumstances of his death?

The circumstances of Mr Floyd’s death have been documented in great detail.

Mr Floyd was apprehended by four police officers after a deli owner called 911 and accused him of buying cigarettes with a forged banknote, also telling the dispatcher that he was “awfully drunk” and had lost self-control.

The officers were Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao, and Derek Chauvin. Two of them, Mr Thao and Mr Chauvin, have previously been the subject of internal complaints; Mr Chauvin has previously been involved in three police shootings, one of which was fatal.

After the officers struggled to get Mr Floyd into the back seat of their car, Mr Chauvin pulled him out of the car and onto the street. At this point, Mr Chauvin and two of the others held him down on the ground, with Mr Chauvin kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Mr Floyd repeatedly told Mr Chauvin he couldn’t breathe, while bystanders implored him to remove his knee. After Mr Floyd apparently lost consciousness, an ambulance arrived — but Mr Chauvin did not stop kneeling on Mr Floyd until one of the paramedics told him to.

An official autopsy found that Mr Floyd did not die of asphyxiation or strangulation, but that underlying heart conditions and “potential intoxication” probably contributed to his death. However, a private autopsy ordered by his family found that he died from compression to the neck and back.

Mr Floyd had tested positive for coronavirus in early April, and the official autopsy found the virus was still detectable in his system almost eight weeks later. However, it was not implicated in the cause of death.

What has happened to the officers involved?

After the footage of Mr Floyd’s death was publicly circulated, all four officers involved were fired.

A complaint filed against Mr Chauvin says he knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, that “2 minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive”, and that “police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous”.

Mr Chauvin has now been charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter, and his bail set at $1.25m.

The other three officers involved in Mr Floyd’s death also face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

How has Donald Trump reacted?

Two days after the killing, Donald Trump tweeted that “My heart goes out to George’s family and friends. Justice will be served!” But while Mr Trump did make a condolence call to Mr Floyd’s family, it seems to have been wide of the mark.

Mr Floyd’s brother told MSNBC that the president “didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about’.”

Aside from his tweet declaring an investigation into the death, Mr Trump’s reaction to the killing has focused squarely on the protests that have erupted since, which he has several times condemned for “dishonouring” George Floyd’s memory. The president has yet to specifically acknowledge the protesters’ main cause – that police violence against black Americans is a systemic problem. Instead, he is repeatedly calling for “law and order”, including on Twitter, and is rejecting calls to “defund the police”.

Having repeatedly called on cities and states to call in the National Guard to calm the protests, the president then told governors to “dominate” the streets and stop the violence by force. Troops were brought into Washington by their thousands, appearing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and in the streets in a spectacle described by some as “fascistic“.

When protests reached the gates of the White House the Friday after Mr Floyd’s death, Mr Trump briefly retreated into an emergency bunker. When he saw reports that he had done so, he left the building for a photo opportunity to demonstrate his strength, standing in front of St John’s Church holding a Bible.

To clear the way for that moment, protesters were dispersed from Lafayette Square using tear gas, something the White House has since denied, quibbling over what gas was in fact used and disputing who gave the order.

How his death turned into a moment of protest

Mr Floyd’s death came after two other killings that called renewed attention to the lethal violence law enforcement metes out to black Americans.

And in February, Ahmaud Arbery of Brunswick, Georgia was killed by two neighbours who pursued him down the street with guns, supposedly because they suspected him of theft. The men concerned, George and Travis McMichael, were only arrested after video of Mr Arbery’s death emerged, causing a public outcry.

And in March, Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky was shot and killed in her apartment by police officers carrying out a drug raid.

(AFP via Getty)

Both killings were met with major protests, but neither sparked anything on the scale of what has ensued since the footage of Mr Floyd’s death emerged.

The unsparingly graphic footage of his death, the manner in which he was killed, the Minneapolis police’s slowness in disciplining Mr Chauvin and the other officers, and the force with which riot police across the country have confronted protests at his death have all combined into something more explosive – a national and increasingly international uprising against not just this one killing, but at a fundamental system of injustice that sees black Americans routinely victimised and killed.

What has the global reaction been?

Protests at Mr Floyd’s death and the systemic racism it reflects have sprung up in cities around the globe, with citizens from Britain to Italy to Syria to Brazil showing solidarity with the cause.

Many have held up placards with the words “I can’t breathe” — some of the last words Mr Floyd spoke as Mr Chauvin knelt on him. They were also the last words of Eric Garner, a black man who died in 2014 after being put in a choke-hold by police in Staten Island, New York.

Other demonstrations have morphed into something more introspective, as anti-racist protesters turn their rage on their own countries’ legacies of racism, colonialism and slavery. In the English city of Bristol, a statue of notorious slaveholder Edward Colston was finally toppled from its pedestal and thrown into the river after years of simmering anger that it was still standing.