In life, George Floyd struggled to find his place. In death, everyone knows his name

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Josie Ensor
·4 min read
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George Floyd at Jack Yates High School, where he was remembered as a middling student and a gentle kid - Lynn Gallien
George Floyd at Jack Yates High School, where he was remembered as a middling student and a gentle kid - Lynn Gallien

His name has been on the lips of protesters everywhere chanting that black lives matter; it has become a global rallying call, a byword for racial injustice and police brutality.

George Floyd, a black man killed with a white policeman’s knee on his neck, has become a parable in America’s aching racial story that has resonated far beyond Minnesota.

But, in life, who was he?

A childhood marked by poverty

Mr Floyd grew up in Houston, Texas, coming of age in the Cuney Homes housing estate in the city’s gritty Third Ward.

When he was not at school, he would hang out with friends at nearby Emancipation Park. During the Jim Crow era, when laws enforced racial segregation in the South until they were finally abolished in the 1960s, it was the only park open to black city residents.

At his funeral in Houston last June, childhood friends told of his struggle to pull himself up out of its grinding poverty.

“We were black and poor,” one old friend told The Telegraph. “If you were black, you were poor, that was just the way it was.”

His mother, Larcenia, or “Cissy” as she was known, flipped burgers to help put food on the table, but even then there was not enough of it to go round.

George Floyd Larcenia Floyd holds her toddler son George
George Floyd Larcenia Floyd holds her toddler son George

Philonise said George used to make himself banana mayonnaise sandwiches when the cupboards were bare.

This didn’t stop an eight-year-old George having big dreams: his second-grade teacher said he wrote in an essay that he wanted to grow up to be a Supreme Court justice.

His teenage years, however, were marred by a series of tragedies that sent his life in a different direction.

When he was 15, his close friend and a big-brother figure was shot and killed. Two others, on his basketball team, were murdered shortly after they graduated from high school.

Mr Floyd, a gifted athlete, decided not to go professional. Instead he turned to music. He was an early contributor to the development of Houston's hip-hop scene, and a keen rapper. He became something of a community leader and mentor to young men from the projects.

George Floyd's rap career
George Floyd's rap career

But the following decade was a struggle for Mr Floyd. He was in and out of work and “fell into the things a lot of the guys in the neighbourhood were doing,” according to the old friends.

After several arrests for theft and drug possession, Mr Floyd was charged in 2007 with armed robbery. After his release on parole a decade later, he decided he needed to make a change.

A move to Minnesota in search of redemption

He moved to Minnesota to be near his maternal aunt, taking up a job at the Salvation Army by day and providing security at a restaurant by night.

He met a woman - the former teacher Courteney Ross - and the two began a relationship.

Ms Ross tearfully told the jury during Mr Chauvin's trial the story of how they met and how she fell in love with "the security guard with this great, deep Southern voice”. She told how the two tried to help each other as they began to struggle once again with drugs.

“Our story - it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids. We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back,” the 45-year-old said.

In March 2020, like many millions of other Americans, he was made redundant by the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

On May 25, Mr Floyd was arrested on a charge of trying to pay for a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill at an off-licence. The police were called, and the rest is history.

Going back to the 1991 Rodney King beating, Americans have become used to watching police violence. Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray had all been victims of police brutality.

Unlike the rest, Mr Floyd’s actual death was caught on film - an excruciating 9 minute and 29-second clarion call.

“With the coronavirus everyone was still, just sat in their homes watching the video of that senseless killing,” Chastity Caesar, a local civil rights activist, told The Telegraph at the funeral. “You couldn’t look away, and when you can’t look away it forces you to do something.”

Mr Floyd, who in life struggled to find his place, was in death given a hero’s welcome.

“Everybody in the world knows who George Floyd is now,” said Reginald Smith, a friend of 35 years. “Presidents, kings and queens, they know the name George Floyd.”