Biography examines how systemic racism shaped the troubled life of George Floyd
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Next week marks the second anniversary of the death of George Floyd, who was said to have told a friend when he was a teenager that one day he wanted to touch the world. Sadly, it was not his life but his murder by police officer Derek Chauvin that touched off a wave of massive protests for racial justice and sparked an ongoing national conversation about race in America. While much is known about George Floyd’s death, our guests, Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa, believe we can learn a lot by looking at his life. Their new book examines Floyd’s 46 years on Earth in detail, drawing on hundreds of interviews and a trove of public and private records, including diary entries, rap lyrics, poems, medical records, historical documents, cellphone videos, social media postings, arrest reports, court documents, job applications, text messages, love letters and more. The book is a portrait of a Black man raised in poverty who, the authors argue, found his opportunities and aspirations limited at every turn by the legacy of slavery and ongoing institutional racism.
Robert Samuels is a national enterprise reporter for The Post. Tolu Olorunnipa is a political enterprise and investigations reporter at The Post and also an on-air contributor to CNN. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.”
Well, Robert Samuels, Tolu Olorunnipa, welcome to FRESH AIR. George Floyd is a name everyone knows. And, of course, it was his tragic murder, not his life, that touched off this movement that had such enormous reach and impact. Why did you want to tell the story of his life in such detail?
ROBERT SAMUELS: Well, we wanted readers to understand that the battle for George Floyd to breathe in America started long before he ever even encountered Derek Chauvin. So what we did was we talked to everyone we could possibly talk to – from his siblings to some of his teachers, as early as second grade, to his coaches, his lovers, his best friends – to get a sense of not just who George Floyd was, but all of the systems that he interacted with and how the legacy of institutional racism shaped his life and, in a lot of cases, hindered that ambition. We believed that if we did that, not only could we tell the story about who George Floyd is, but we’d also get a sense of who we are as a society. And we can begin to explore the questions about what race and racism can not just do to a person, but to all of those folks who are moved and had questions about George Floyd after he died.
DAVIES: You know, as I prepared for our interview – I will say, this is a really absorbing read. There’s so much here. And it occurred to me that given how passionate people feel about his life and the issues, that some are going to hear us – and we’re not going to cover everything, and some may be angry about what we include or don’t include in this interview. And this is something that I’m sure you and your editors confronted as you wrote the book. Any words to listeners or readers about that subject, about what they think they deserve to get and don’t get?
TOLU OLORUNNIPA: Well, I would say to readers that we are journalists. We have a task and a calling to find out the truth. We happen to be Black men, as well, and we have a certain understanding of some of the things that George Floyd faced as he was coming up in the world. But we did not shy away from his mistakes, from his troubles, from his shortcomings. He also didn’t shy away from those mistakes. He openly acknowledged them. He shed tears over them. He agonized over them in his own writings that we got access to. And we go into everything.
SAMUELS: Absolutely. And when we think about journalism, I think our North Stars are empathy and the truth. And when we went about reporting this book, that’s what we were thinking about. We were thinking about properly contextualizing the life of a man and understanding that complication does not make anyone less of a man or less important to read about. A lot of people on Twitter have talked to us and they’ve said, why are you talking about this guy? He was no saint. But I think it’s important to remind people that this movement wasn’t started because of the death of a saint. It was started because of the death of a man.
DAVIES: George Floyd was born in North Carolina, and his mother eventually divorced George’s father, George Floyd Sr. And they moved to Houston with Philonise Hogan, who was her partner at the time. George – so George grew up in Houston at the – from the age of 7 or so – lived in a public housing project. Do you want to describe the family’s neighborhood, what kind of life they had there?
OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, I can describe the Cuney Homes housing project. It’s the largest housing project in Houston. It was created back in the 1940s at a time when federal housing projects were just really getting underway. And at the time it was created, it was created to be housing specifically for African American residents in Houston as the city was trying to segregate itself in a deeper way. Fast-forward 40 years when the Floyds moved there in the 1980s, and it’s still 99% Black. It’s still segregated, even though, you know, housing segregation has been outlawed by this – the Congress and civil rights laws. And it’s a sign of the kind of enduring segregation that has lasted into the 21st century in this country.
Now, George Floyd grew up in a community that not only was all Black, but was also impoverished and was neglected by the government. And it was a place where, you know, people grew up watching each other’s children, and there was a strong community bond. But in part because of the divestment and redlining and a number of different housing policies that took place over the course of several decades, it was a place that was – where almost everyone who was growing up there lived in poverty. And when you have that kind of concentrated poverty, it’s very difficult to see a way out.
DAVIES: You interviewed a lot of friends of his and, I think, a second grade teacher. What did you learn about what kind of kid he was?
SAMUELS: Well, what we learned from Ms. Sexton, his second grade teacher – she was a white woman from a border town between rural Texas and Oklahoma. And she was sent to Third Ward – that’s the ward that hosts the Cuney Homes – to teach as a part of a teacher corps program. What she remembers about George Floyd was that he was an invested student. He believed in the power of education. Now, he loved to run and jump and play outside like every other boy, but there’s one thing that really struck me about what she said.
She had these records. And in the records it showed that George Floyd – at the end of second grade, he was reading at grade level. His math skills were at grade level, which is a pretty big accomplishment if you’re growing up in a neighborhood as depressed and under-resourced as Cuney Homes. It was a pretty big achievement. And what that showed to us was – there was a big question about what happened, how a person who started with all this ambition ended up in a place where he could not graduate high school on time.
DAVIES: You write about the school and how school segregation in Texas was a very real thing at the time and how steps were taken to subvert the intent of the Brown v. Board of Education system. It was not a great school system. George Floyd was a big guy – right? – and an athlete. What was he like as an athlete?
OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, we got to speak to a lot of the people who went to high school with George Floyd. And it was very clear that as soon as he walked into the halls of Jack Yates High School, which was a school that was another place that was originally created for segregation and for African American students and remain segregated even after Brown v. Board of Education. But, you know, people saw George Floyd and they said, this is someone who is going to succeed on the sports field. Let’s not focus so much on the schooling part of it, because this is a school that is under-resourced and, you know, the people that are successful from this school are successful because of sports. When Floyd entered high school, there were three players on the Chicago Bears who were alumni of his high school, and the Chicago Bears had a 53-member roster. And if you have three players from the same high school, it shows you sort of the dominance of the high school tradition of sports at Jack Yates. And, you know, Floyd entered school and he saw his body and he saw what people were telling him. And he decided to focus on trying to make it as a sports player, as a football player. And that led to him, you know, falling behind on the academic front, in part because there was so much focus on sports. But he was a successful football player. His team went to the state championship and he helped them get there. And he was successful in that game, even though they didn’t end up prevailing. But it was very clear, and readers will see this in the book, how quickly those dreams of success on the sports field were derailed, in part because of his shaky education. He was not able to graduate high school on time, and the dream of getting a scholarship to a big college was really cut short, in part because he didn’t have the academic record to sustain that kind of dream.
DAVIES: On his athletic ability, one thing of note. You said that his coaches had one critique of him. He was big, but he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t aggressive the way a football player needs to be.
SAMUELS: Right. I mean, one of the things that was interesting about George Floyd, and at this point everyone called him Big Floyd, was that his coaches always complained he lacked the ruthlessness of the rest of the team at Jack Yates High School. Now, Jack Yates as a high school, they were known for having an aggressive defensive style of play. And their coach would tell them that the football field was a bit of a morality play of sorts, right? That they were going against these richer, more well-off white schools, and this game was the rich against the poor. And you needed to show them, and use your aggression to be able to succeed on the football field. That wasn’t George Floyd’s personality. He had to learn.
DAVIES: So he went to schools that were not known for their scholastic achievement, and they valued his athletic ability over his – the priority of studying. That’s part of what explains why this kid, who in second grade had such ambitions and was on grade level reading, had trouble graduating. Talk about what was going on at home. His stepdad, Folones (ph), did he stay around?
SAMUELS: George Floyd, he grew up in a single-parent household. His father was a musician. He was not around. The man who – Cissy Floyd, that’s what they called Larcenia, George Floyd’s mother – who Miss Cissy moved in with, Folones, was not around either. It was Miss Cissy, as she was known in the neighborhood, as the family matriarch, and a family with George Floyd being the oldest male in the house. And he took that role pretty seriously. He always saw himself as the patriarch over the family, and someone who had to play second-in-command to his mother.
DAVIES: And he had a sister who, at some point, you write, had an addiction issue, and he helped take care of her son. Do I have this right?
OLORUNNIPA: Yes. Yes. Floyd, George Floyd ended up sort of being a father figure to his nephew, even as he was also a bit of a father figure to his younger brothers as well, in part because of the epidemic of addiction that was ravaging the towns and communities where George Floyd grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And, you know, for a teenage, high school kid, a kid trying to go to college, which Floyd eventually did go to college on a sports scholarship, realizing that you have this entire family that’s relying on you, that relies on you financially in some ways, and relies on you also as the the model to make it out of the community and to make some kind of a living, it really bore on him. It really was difficult for him to try to live a life as a college student, when you’re, you know, getting calls from home and knowing that there are needs that need to be met, knowing that there’s still an issue of poverty, knowing that his mother at the time was having health issues.
So he did see himself as the man of the house. And it did lead him to making some difficult and unfortunate decisions about sort of how to try to make money. But there was a time in his life where he was in college, but because he was the man of the house, and because he was sort of being relied on for a number of different things, it was difficult for him to live a life as a normal college student, or even focus on the academic part of college. He was there on a football scholarship, and he was really trying to see how he can make it to the NFL, so that he can make enough money to support his family. And he ended up dropping out of college.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa, who are enterprise reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re talking with Washington Post enterprise reporters Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They’ve written a new book about the life of George Floyd. It’s called “His Name Is George Floyd.” George Floyd wanted to be a pro football player. He – the academics got in the way. He got – I think he got a basketball scholarship to a small college in South Florida, and then ended up at Texas A&I University, a small college in South Texas. In the end, had to let it go. He gave up on that. Was that a big turning point in his life, when he kind of – he was, I guess, 24 by that point, decided he wasn’t going to make it as an athlete, and he had to set a new course?
SAMUELS: Yes. When George Floyd had to return home from college, what you saw was the disintegration of a dream, right? And you also have to understand that for someone like George Floyd, this is the dissolution of an American promise, right? He was in school, and they told him this was the way to escape poverty. This was the way to create a new path for his family. And at the same time, that same school system did not allow him, did not provide him the necessary skills to even make it through college, to prepare him for that next step. And so when he returns to Houston and goes back to his home where his mother has fallen ill, he has some choices he needs to make. He has to figure out how to provide for his family, including the nieces and nephews that we had spoken about before. But he also has to figure out what his purpose in life is and how he can have a life that’s purposeful, and if not a life that’s purposeful, a life that’s sufficient enough so that there can be food on the table.
DAVIES: His first drug arrest was in 1997, you write, selling crack to an undercover officer. And, you know, we know that he would struggle with drug use for the rest of his life. What did you learn about how he got involved with using drugs in addition to selling them to make money?
OLORUNNIPA: Well, one of the first things that I want to mention is sort of how ubiquitous the police were during the crack down. In the Third Ward and, specifically, in the Cuney Homes housing project. Police were everywhere. It was a time of, you know, the beginning of the process of mass incarceration and the war on drugs and the efforts that were being made. And we spoke to former police chiefs that were working the beat at the time. Essentially, their mission was to get drugs off the street and to arrest people who were being seen as, you know, possessing drugs, selling drugs. And Floyd got caught up in that system. He was arrested multiple times over the course of his life. And we actually documented at least six of the police officers that he encountered over his life were later charged with crimes of their own, including the officers that were part of his death.
One of the things we note in the book is the statistics that show that drug use among Black Americans and white Americans and Americans of various backgrounds are relatively similar. But when it comes to the arrest records, when it comes to the consequences of, you know, of possessing drugs, it’s a much more disproportionate impact when it comes to the Black community. And Floyd felt that. And he experienced that. Most of his arrests were for petty drug possession. And that’s something that you rarely see in other communities. But because police had this mission to target the community that he came from, he was an easy target.
DAVIES: I wonder what you learned about kind of his mental state. I mean, it’s clear he wasn’t just selling drugs from time to time. He was using them, which, you know, complicated things in his life. You noted that when he was in – in one of his arrests, he was ordered a psychiatric assessment because he said that he had – was depressed and was hearing voices. The assessment concluded he was faking a mental illness. What do we know about – of his kind of psychiatric condition at the time?
SAMUELS: One of the things that remains a bit of a mystery is whether or not George Floyd ever got an honest and fair assessment of his mental state. Now, what we know is he had a perennial disappointment about how his life turned out, that he did not get to fulfill the dream of playing football. I think the first thing we need to think about is the type of drugs that was being used in Cuney Homes that George Floyd developed a dependency on. And they were largely opioids. Now, the thing about those drugs is they slow down the system. They create this trance-like high, which was an escapist route for a lot of people who used them. It helped escape the pressures and the realities of the neighborhood in which they lived. Now, toward the end of his life, as he continued to struggle with these issues, a few things become clear. One, a lot of his friends talk about the fact that he seemed depressed because he was living a life that did not seem fulfilling, even though he continued to try. The other thing that I think is important when we think about his mental state is we don’t know so much about it because there isn’t a lot of good research about depression within Black men.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They are enterprise reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.” They’ll be back to talk more about George Floyd’s life after this short break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We’re speaking with Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. Their new book examines the life of George Floyd, whose murder by a Minneapolis police officer two years ago touched off a wave of massive protests for racial justice. Samuels and Olorunnipa argue that George Floyd’s struggles in life reflect the challenges and pressures of institutional racism in the country. Their book is “His Name Is George Floyd.”
You know, most of George Floyd’s interaction with the justice system was for nonviolent drug offenses. The one big exception was his guilty plea to participation in an armed robbery – a home invasion robbery. And this is something that you spend – you offer a fairly detailed description of. It’s a case where several men entered a home looking for drugs and money and held the woman who was there at gunpoint. Apparently, it was the wrong house, and they left with some jewelry and a cellphone. Well, first of all, based on your own reporting, what role, if any, do you think George Floyd likely played in this crime?
OLORUNNIPA: Well, I do want readers to read this part of the book, especially those who are skeptical, especially those who have heard this part of Floyd’s life – you know, when people try to discredit him, they say, do you – did you talk to the woman who was pregnant and he held her up at gunpoint? And we go very deep. One of our colleagues interviewed the woman in Spanish to get a sense of what she remembers about that day. And there are questions about who was involved. We write in the book that Floyd was the person behind the wheel of the car that went to this house. But he told his friends, he told people who he confessed other crimes to, that he adamantly insisted that he was not the gunman, that he was not even in the house. And while Floyd may have had some culpability in this case, I think there is a question about sort of how the case was prosecuted.
As we heard from the woman involved, she had an option to say, you know, whether she was completely sure that Floyd was the person who had done this, whether she was not sure or whether she had a tentative confirmation that Floyd was the person. And she chose tentative, which is less than beyond a reasonable doubt. But the police were able to use that, and they were able to get a guilty plea out of him by threatening him with more than 40 years in prison. He ultimately ended up serving a little over four years. But those are the kind of choices that you’re faced with in this kind of community.
DAVIES: You make the point that in all of his interactions with the justice system, he never actually faced a jury of his peers. In each case, you know, prosecutors, you know, charged him, and then he was presented with very difficult choices. You know, you can roll your dice on a trial and maybe get a lot of time. And so he, based on consultations, pled guilty and was sentenced to five years.
You know, I think it’s – I just want to spend a moment on this because the other crimes weren’t violent. This involved the use of a gun. It doesn’t sound like he was the one with the gun, although it’s hard to be sure. Sounds like he was probably the driver. Did you ever, in any of your reporting on George Floyd, ever hear of him committing an act of physical violence against anyone?
SAMUELS: No. And that’s what made this particular crime so eyebrow-raising to those who knew him and those who met him later. He was known for not being a violent person. And I know there are some listeners who are wondering, why did George Floyd take this deal? Why did he plead guilty if he did not do this crime? And I think you also have to consider the context of the life that – in which he was living, right? When you grow up in a society, in a community, that tells you that if you don’t do right, if you’re not perfect, you’re going to end up in jail or in prison, there’s a sense that if you’re not completely on the straight and narrow, that this was coming for you because the police were such an overwhelming presence. And George Floyd, when you talk to his friends, they said, well, it’s not my crime, but I’ll do the time because this time it’s my time.
DAVIES: So he enters prison early 2009, and I think he’s there between three and four years. And, you know, prison can be a different kind of experience. Sometimes it provides opportunities for training or education or rehabilitation. You write a bit about the Texas corrections system at the time. What should we know about it and its impact on George Floyd?
OLORUNNIPA: Well, this was a system where, statistically, it was more likely that people who go through THE system would recommit and be arrested again within three years than it was that they wouldn’t be. Sixty percent of people who left this Texas system were rearrested in three years. And part of it had to do with the fact that they – the prisoners themselves said that they just spent their time wiling away in these prisons. A lot of these prisons were run by private companies, including the prison that Floyd ended up in, and they had a profit motive to spend as little as possible and to incarcerate as many people as possible.
And when Floyd was in prison, there were not programs to get treatment for his addiction. There were not programs for him to build skills. There were not, you know, the kinds of programs for someone who had actually spent some time in college to get some educational skills that could be used. Floyd told his friends that he was just wasting away while he was in prison. And, you know, it was not surprising that so many of the people that he was incarcerated with ended up going back to prison within just a number of years. Now, Floyd did not end up going back to prison after this stint, after leaving prison in 2013. He served his time and tried to live a better life afterward.
SAMUELS: We were talking about mental health earlier. And being in a cramped cell – this was the complete flowering of his claustrophobia, which ended up being a debilitating thing for him throughout the course of his life. So he leaves prison with this fear of enclosed spaces. He would not want to be in the back of cars. He could not be in elevators. Sometimes he could not even be in bathrooms without the door being open because he’d begin to have panic attacks, thinking about his time in prison.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take a break here. We are speaking with Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They are enterprise reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.” We’ll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They are enterprise reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book about the life of George Floyd is “His Name Is George Floyd.”
When George Floyd was released from prison after his longest stint, more than three years, in 2013, he was determined never to return. But, you know, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. We all know that it’s tough for people with criminal convictions to find jobs and employment. And in Texas, you write that there were other restrictions, I mean, all kinds of professional licenses that cannot go to someone with a felony conviction. And a few years later, he decides to move to Minneapolis for a fresh start. He goes there. And things go well for a while, right? I mean, he gets a job at a Salvation Army shelter, I think, meets friends, stays clean for a while. He wants to become a truck driver. At one point, he actually gets a job driving a truck on routes throughout the Midwest. And he had some meaningful relationships, too, including with a woman named Courteney Ross, right? What’s your sense of how it went wrong again?
SAMUELS: Well, everything was going so well for George Floyd when he moved to Minnesota at first. He got a job. He got a second job. He was taking classes to become a truck driver. And he started a relationship with a woman from Minneapolis, a white woman named Courteney Ross. He even got a pretty nice townhome in a very nice part of town, predominantly white, suburban town called St. Louis Park, which overlooks sparkling waters and is near some fancy restaurants. There are even police officers there who wave at him and say hello. It’s a very different experience from what he experienced in Houston. And so he’s living in this townhome with a friend who he made in rehab who had a similar background. He was a large guy. Everyone called him Big E. He had a history of playing basketball, he had – some time in college. And they got clean together. They move into this townhome. And one day in October of 2017, George Floyd walks in after he finishes a double shift from work and he sees Big E unconscious. And he goes – he yells at him to wake up. He doesn’t. His body’s gone cold. And he realizes that Big E had died of a drug overdose.
Now, when this happens, the gregarious George Floyd, he isolates himself. No one sees him for weeks. And when he emerges, he starts telling people how he’s again moved to a dark place. And they discover that he’s started to use again. And that sets off a spiral for the rest of his time in Minneapolis, where there are ups and downs. And he ultimately ends up having a dependency to prescription pills. And the next big blow is the death of his mother, Larcenia “Cissy” Floyd. And when that happens, people say – those who knew Floyd, those who lived with Floyd, those who dated George Floyd, those who talked with George Floyd, they say that was something he could not get over. There’d be times where he’d be crying in his room alone. There’d be times where he’d try to pray himself into a better place by reading the Book of Proverbs. And nothing seemed to stick. Going into 2020, when he loses his job because of the pandemic – cannot work as a security guard at a place that’s closed, cannot get a job moving things or being a bouncer or a bodyguard when there is no music and there is no production. And he also has a bout of the coronavirus. He was asymptomatic, but that kept him isolated. So things took a dark turn.
DAVIES: There’s a lot more we can’t get here. But I wanted to just spend a moment in talking about some of the reporting you did about the Minneapolis Police Department. And remarkably, in 2010, 10 years before George Floyd’s murder, there was a 28-year-old Black man, David Cornelius Smith, who died in police custody in circumstances that are kind of remarkable, looking back on them. You want to tell us what happened and how the department handled it?
SAMUELS: So Mr. Smith, who had a mental illness, he was at the YMCA. And teenagers playing on the basketball court said he was disturbing them. So they call the police. And things escalate. And the police end up wrestling Mr. Smith to the ground, putting a knee between his shoulders for more than 4 minutes. And David Cornelius Smith dies of what they call mechanical asphyxiation. He choked because there was something that was unnatural on his body. Now, the police department rules that the actions of the officers were justified because they were obeying protocol. They had the knee on David Smith’s neck because it was hard to restrain him. But they did settle a civil case with his family. And as a part of that case, they talk about how they need to redo training on police officers so if they use something like what they call a prone restraint, which is you have the suspect on the ground and you’re applying pressure to their body, that if they use it, they know how to use it the proper way, which is to not exert deadly pressure and to stop using the technique when the person stops resisting.
DAVIES: What did you learn about Derek Chauvin and his record, in particular, his history of using neck restraint with his knee?
OLORUNNIPA: Derek Chauvin was known as a thumper within the police department where he worked. And that was not a compliment. He was known as someone who used the neck restraint several times before he met George Floyd. He used it on children. He used it on elderly men. He used it on, you know, people big and small. And he was – it was sort of a move that he often resorted to when he felt that he wanted to get someone under control. And there were several complaints that he had used excessive force over the course of his 19-year career with the Minneapolis Police Department. But he was never really reprimanded in a major way. He was never at risk of losing his job despite having so many complaints against him. And it was not surprising for people who had seen his career, people who had seen him policing in the neighborhood, that he had used such force against George Floyd when they met on May 25, 2020.
SAMUELS: And over time, we counted at least nine times in which he had used the technique. You see him using it in ways that are more aggressive and more deadly. And on a 900-person police force, Derek Chauvin accounted for 3% of the use of neck restraints that we could count. So he used it disproportionately.
But the other thing that I think is important that we recognize about Derek Chauvin, who, you know, we’d spoke to folks who knew him, who talked about his love for action shows like “Starsky & Hutch” and cop procedurals throughout his life is that how he acted, the type of complaints that he received up until the day he met George Floyd were not seen as unusual or uncommon within his police precinct. That precinct was known to be a precinct that used, in the words of one of the inspectors, perhaps more force than they should. So they had a reputation within that community for being aggressive, and that community was particularly diverse.
DAVIES: George Floyd’s murder occurred on Memorial Day 2020. I mean, so much has been reported about that day already. And you you walk us through it in the book. But rather than doing that now, I’m just going to ask you, are there things that you learned about that day that surprised you or that you think people might not know and should?
OLORUNNIPA: We learned what Floyd was doing before he encountered Derek Chauvin, before he even walked into the convenience store where he was alleged to have used the counterfeit $20 bill. He was, you know, meeting up with friends. He was supposed to be at a barbecue later that day. He had left one of his friends homes to run a few errands. And he was supposed to come back with, you know, lighter fluid and barbecue items. And obviously, he would never make it home that day. But I think it’s important for readers to know that, you know, George Floyd was not seeking the kind of end that he ended up receiving from Derek Chauvin. He was assuming that he would have a normal day, that he’d end it at a barbecue, at a friend’s house. And obviously, things turned out much worse for him than than expected.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa, who are enterprise reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.” We’ll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Washington Post enterprise reporters Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They’ve written a new book about the life of George Floyd. It’s called “His Name Is George Floyd.”
You have a lot of interesting material here about the trial, preparing for the trial, about the protests and how they grow. One of the things that I found interesting was that members of the George Floyd family – and there were some in Houston and there were some in North Carolina, as well as a network of friends in Minneapolis and in Texas – they were grieving, but suddenly they were thrust into the vortex of this huge movement of protest and activism. And celebrities wanted to talk to them, and that was difficult for them. And Philonise, his brother, kind of became one of the more visible members of the family. There were some interesting moments. You write, for example, about his phone call from President Trump. Tell us about that.
SAMUELS: All these people are trying to get in contact with the Floyd family in the days after George Floyd was murdered. And the interaction with President Trump, as Philonise recalls it, is that it was very abrupt. President Trump continued to talk. Philonise could hardly get a word in. And he really wanted to say, get justice for my brother. I can’t believe I just saw a modern day lynching. But the words cannot get out of his mouth. And it felt to him that President Trump couldn’t get off the phone call fast enough.
DAVIES: He had many contacts with President Biden. I mean, there were phone calls. There were in-person meetings. The family was invited to the White House. What can you tell us about those interactions?
OLORUNNIPA: There was a sense that, you know, with Biden’s election after Floyd’s death, Biden making much of his campaign about this idea that the country needs needed to heal and bring about racial justice. He chose the first African American woman to be his vice president. And there was a sense that there was momentum, that something would happen that would be able to honor George Floyd’s name and his legacy through a policing reform bill that the family had gotten behind. And there was a time when President Biden spoke before Congress and said that he wanted to sign that bill on the first anniversary of Floyd’s death in May of 2021. And there was a time when it seemed like that might be possible. And we were able to interview President Biden for this book and get a sense for his, you know, goal of wanting to be able to sign that bill.
Now, in hindsight, a year later, we know that that bill was not signed. We know that instead there was a backlash against the idea that police reform needed to happen. There was a push against even the idea of discussing race in schools and books that began to get banned and whatnot. And we’re able to chronicle that. And between President Biden and the Floyd family, there is sort of this souring of this idea of being able to all come together and get them on Air Force One and fly to sign this bill on the first anniversary. And this has become just another political fight in which there’s a stalemate and nothing gets done. And that’s something that the family has been pretty upset about and pretty understandably distraught over, that even though it seemed like there was this momentum and that something would happen to honor Floyd’s legacy and to make sure that this kind of thing did not happen again, all of that seemed to have evaporated very quickly.
DAVIES: Again, I’ll just note that there’s a lot in this book that I think is worth people reading. We can’t get to all of it. But I thought we’d close with a question that’s a big one, but invite your comment. You know, there was this bill in Congress that the Floyd family hoped would be enacted, which would have some major reforms on police. That didn’t happen. Some states and cities did things. And obviously, the protests had a wider impact on all of us. As you reflect on it, what were the most important impacts of George Floyd’s life and death?
OLORUNNIPA: That’s such an important and insightful question, and I could spend quite a long time talking about it. But one of the things I think we can reflect on, two years later after George Floyd died, is that the country is different. The conversations about race are different. There is an understanding that institutional racism does exist. Now, there is a resistance to that that we’re seeing live, and we’re seeing it play out. But I think people are understanding that what Black people have been complaining about for years is real and, in a very real sense, that there is a systemic nature to some of the racism that George Floyd faced and that so many millions of people like him face.
And there has been an effort – I don’t want to downplay the measures that have been taken, both in the corporate world and in local communities with local laws – to change some of that, to change the way policing works, to change the way systemic racism operates. That is ongoing. There is a pushback. There’s always a sense that the fight will continue, that it will never be over. But I do think the country has shifted its view, and it’s realized that a lot of the things that were being complained about and the things that were being raised as issues that need to be changed have been acknowledged. And that’s something that is part of George Floyd’s legacy.
SAMUELS: Yeah. In our conversation with Reverend Al Sharpton, he references the Newton law of civil rights, which is for every action, there’s an equal reaction. And we’re seeing a backlash to some of the things that seemed clear to us in 2020 about the presence of systemic racism and the importance of confronting it. One thing that I think about with George Floyd is how persistent he was in trying, because he believed in the American promise. He thought there was still a chance for this country to do better and see him in his fullness and wholeness with all the nuance.
And one of the things that just really hit me as I was reporting this story, Dave, is that so many people who took up his cause, largely Black people, maintained that optimism that they can build a better tomorrow – even when we had discussions and we did the reporting and we talked with the governor of Minnesota and the president himself – who believed that maybe hate can never fully go away in this country, maybe it only hides. But one thing that I hope folks understand is that there is an incredible, powerful, inspiring persistence that has gone on with Black people in this country who still believe in the American hope. And I think the question we want readers to wrestle with is, how can we achieve that better tomorrow, knowing that the past is what it was?
DAVIES: Well, Robert Samuels, Tolu Olorunnipa, thank you so much for speaking with us.
OLORUNNIPA: Thank you, Dave.
OLORUNNIPA: Really appreciate it.
DAVIES: Robert Samuels is a national enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Tolu Olorunnipa is a political enterprise and investigations reporter at The Post and an on-air contributor to CNN. Their new book is “His Name Is George Floyd.”
On tomorrow’s show, we’ll speak with New York Times religion correspondent Ruth Graham about how the issues dividing the Republican Party are also creating tensions within white evangelical churches across the country. Graham says pastors who won’t embrace Donald Trump’s views are facing criticism, losing parishioners and, in some cases, leaving the ministry. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY’S “REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON”)
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