Who was George Floyd, the man whose death has sparked protests across the US?

Gino Spocchia
A Minneapolis mural for George Floyd: AP

George Floyd was big, humble and honest. But above all, according to those who knew him, he wanted to make the lives of those he loved better despite life’s difficulties.

Known as “Big Floyd”, the 46-year-old had recently lost his job as a security job when a Minneapolis policeman pinned him to the ground last month, kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes, despite his repeated utterances that he could no longer breathe. He later died in hospital, an event which has sparked worldwide protests against institutionalised racism and police brutality.

The Houston native had moved to Minneapolis in an attempt to restart his life after his mother’s death and a prison sentence, more than two years ago.

A friend, Christopher Harris, had convinced him that Minneapolis could be the place to make a new beginning.

But then, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the US, Floyd lost his security guard position at a restaurant after Minnesota’s governor ordered all businesses to close.

On Monday 25 May, police officer Derek Chauvin – who had allegedly worked alongside Mr Floyd at another Minneapolis venue last year – knelt on the unarmed black man’s neck and, after worldwide condemnation, was charged with his murder.

“I just literally broke down,” said college friend Robert Caldwell to ABC Action News this week. “I said that’s my Floyd, that’s my guy, that’s Floyd.”

He had been on the basketball team at Florida Community College in Avon Park, Highland County, which he attended between 1993 and 1995.

At six feet six inches, Floyd excelled at both basketball and American football, which earned him an invitation to play at the Florida college before returning to Texas.

His college friends, as have others, described Floyd as a “gentle giant” who was humble, humorous and an athlete.

At John Yates High School, he had worn the number 88 on the school football team that made the 1992 State Championship final.

After his graduation in 1993, he wore the number 5 on the basketball team at Florida Community College.

When he returned to Texas in 1995, Mr Floyd attended Texas A&M University, Kingsville, but according to local news reports he did not complete his degree.

A former classmate, and the current head coach of the university’s men’s basketball team, told local news media that “George, he was a very, very humble man”.

“He was a guy that was a favourite for everybody. Everybody on campus knew him,” added Johnny Estelle.

Floyd’s athleticism and social activities were also praised in his Third Ward neighbourhood, Houston.

Friend Corey Paul told the LA Times how “Big Floyd”, who was “built like LeBron James,” had helped create a basketball court ministry at housing projects in the neighbourhood.

His community outreach came after arrests for theft and drug possession, and an armed robbery charge in 2007, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison with a plea deal.

Having grown up in the centre of the city’s black community, Mr Floyd was keen to support young black youths and became an advocate for ending gun violence.

“Floyd’s respect came through love — he’d been sacrificing and giving to people for so long,” added Mr Paul.

Floyd later turned his attention to having children, to whom he was devoted and loving.

The mother of his six-year-old daughter, Roxie Washington, told the Houston Chronicle that “he was so big that they thought he was always a fighting person but he was a loving person… and he loved his daughter.”

He also loved hip-hop, and became known for his involvement in Houston’s hip hop scene in the late 1990s, as part of The Screwed Up Click collective.

The movement created the now-famous chopped and screwed DJ technique that slowed down the beats of popular songs in a series of Screw Tapes.

Floyd’s words, alongside slowed down funk, would boast about his Third Ward roots and his dreams about driving a Bentley in mixtapes including “So Tired Of Ballin” and “Sugar Hill”.

Still, he was convinced about the promise of Minneapolis after his prison sentence, and his mother’s death had been the moment he decided to leave Houston.

So whilst his mixtapes will continue to discuss his pride and his dreams, George Floyd’s last words have captured America’s shame.

“Mama, I can’t”.

“I cannot breathe”.

“Please, I can’t’ breathe”.