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.

After footage of Mr Floyd’s death was publicly circulated, all four officers involved were fired. Mr Chauvin was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The complaint filed against him 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”.

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.

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.

Having repeatedly called on cities and states to call in the National Guard, the president has now said he will send in the military if the protests do not stop, though it is unclear whether he has the authority to do that.

Beyond alluding to Mr Floyd’s memory, has yet to specifically acknowledge any of the protesters’ demands or grievances, including the idea that police violence against black Americans is a systemic problem.

How his death turned into a moment of protest

Mr Floyd’s death comes after two recent killings called renewed attention to the lethal violence meted 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 arresting Mr Chauvin, and the force with which riot police across the country have confronted protests at his death have all combined into something more explosive — an uprising against not just this one killing, but at a fundamental system of injustice that victimises black Americans and includes the authorities’ use of lethal violence.

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 Mr Floyd and the Americans protesting his killing. 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, NY.