How is it someone can gain such notoriety in death but have their life largely unknown? That’s what Robert Samuels wondered as he set out to profile George Floyd, and explore what Floyd’s death — and life — might reveal about him, and about the world he inhabited. After police killed Floyd in Minneapolis in May, in an arrest caught on video, Samuels read everything about Floyd he could find. “Even though I read them, I had no real sense of his soul,” he says.
Samuels is a national political reporter for The Washington Post who covers the intersection of politics, policy and people. He was one member of a team of reporters who produced “George Floyd’s America,” a sweeping multimedia series about racism and systemic inequity that was published throughout October 2020. Samuels’ colleagues tackled stories illustrating how broken institutions, like public housing projects and the criminal justice system, impacted Floyd’s life. Samuels’ focus, meanwhile, was on Floyd himself, as a searing example of those societal realities, and especially the toll that racism takes on the body.
“It felt to me that the conditions of his life probably inspired him to do some of the things that he did,” says Samuels. So he went to Minneapolis to learn about Floyd’s experience there, not knowing what he’d uncover. The result is a longform story that follows Samuels through the last stage of his life journey, explores how a lifetime of prejudice haunted that stage, carries voices of people who knew him in different ways, and balances the depiction of broad systems with individual details.
We weren’t interested in talking about his death anymore. We wanted to talk about his life. ~ Robert Samuels
The entire project is a strong example of how each aspect of a bigger story can be explored as a deep dive on its own, then packaged to make a stronger whole. We reached out to Steven Ginsberg, the Washington Post editor who guided the series, for some insights on how the project came together and how he managed a team effort.
Here, we talk to Samuels about the reporting trail he chased to understand the strains on George Floyd’s life and the high stakes that came with getting this story right. An annotation of Samuels’ story follows our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk to me about how your story emerged and what role it played in this series? There were so many people contributing to this project. I’m curious why you gravitated to this piece of the puzzle.
My editor, Steven Ginsberg, suggested that I focus on health because I had done some coronavirus reporting on the ground in Milwaukee, where Black people had started dying of Coronavirus at disproportionate rates. What I saw really haunted me, to be honest. So I had already been oriented toward health disparities, at that point.
We also knew that George Floyd had coronavirus. At that point, we didn’t know what the story would be. So I said, well, let’s start from the outside and drill down. I started researching health institutions, and what we know about disparities and places where he lived — Fayetteville, North Carolina, Houston, and Minneapolis. Then along the way, I read somewhere that he had gone to Minneapolis for rehab. I don’t think the place was named, but eventually, I found out about Turning Point. Through conversations with people who tangentially knew George Floyd, I figured out that he had gone there.
What struck me about it was that George Floyd made a conscious decision not just to go to any rehab center. He chose one that focused on the African American experience — my first indicator that he knew that there was something distinctive about his condition, as a Black man, that required a specific type of healing. That led me down a very interesting reporting journey in terms of figuring out why George Floyd would want to come to this place.
At what point did you become certain that George Floyd would be the right person to illustrate these structural issues? Did this develop as you learned about the conditions of his life, or were you going to profile him no matter what you found?
The project was about George Floyd and systemic racism, so it had to be connected to him. What we didn’t know, at the time, was just how illustrative George Floyd was about these larger problems. To be frank, as a Black man myself, I intuitively had a sense that his relationship to his body would be interesting. I feel that every Black man has an interesting relationship with their body because it’s never felt like their own. That’s something that’s very unique and distinctive to the Black male experience that we don’t see talked about often in legacy newspapers like mine. I thought if we started to ask about how George Floyd felt about his size, it might open doors in terms of unlocking his personality.
The first expert you usually start with, when you’re talking about how racism affects conditions, is a woman named Arline Geronimus. She created something called the ‘weathering hypothesis’ in the 1990s; it theorized that because of the stresses of racism, Black mothers often come to the hospital sicker than white mothers. Dr. Geronimus threw me to one of her protegees, Darrell Hudson of Washington University in St. Louis, who started talking to me about ‘John Henryism’ — this idea that Black people often feel like they have to take great lengths and work twice as hard to get a fair shake in this country.
Hudson pointed to all of the things George Floyd tried to do to get himself out of the projects, and every time, he kept on getting hurt. It turned out that George Floyd was a really good example of how these things operate. As we learned more about him, both my editor and I had this sort of this jaw-dropping moment, where we were like, ‘Oh, he’s the exact right person to tell this story.’ I think a lot of people who did the other stories felt that way, too.
Access to sources close to George Floyd seems like the most critical aspect to making a feature like yours as compelling as it was. I’m curious whether his close friends and family were amenable to talking to you from the beginning. How did you approach making them feel comfortable talking — especially given that they were grappling with their loss, that trauma, and the trauma of seeing his death so publicly?
No one was interested in talking to me. It took a lot of persuasion to get through the door. I read as many previous stories about George Floyd as I could to get a sense of what was missing. What I felt was missing was the spirit of who George Floyd was, and also the idea that he was trying to navigate a world where there were so many things stacked against him. When I approached people, I told them that we weren’t interested in talking about his death anymore. We wanted to talk about his life.
When I called the people at Turning Point, I said that I really wanted to understand how this rehab center works. The executive director, Peter Hayden, was very nervous because I’m some dude from out of town. The media does not have a great reputation; it does not have a great reputation specifically in doing stories about Black people who’ve died at the hands of the police. He showed me around the facility for about three days and I started sitting in on recovery classes. It turned out that I happened to be sitting in the same area where George Floyd used to sit, the back right corner.
At some point, someone says to the person leading the conversation, ‘What’s he doing here?’ I said that I wanted to learn about how Black people heal, but that I was particularly in Minneapolis because I thought people here would have a unique perspective on what George Floyd meant to them. When I said that, half a dozen people wanted to talk because they’d known and loved him.
How did that evolve?
During those conversations, someone said ‘Floyd and Big E, they were like a pair.’ They started telling me about how he’d met this close friend, and told the story about George Floyd walking in and seeing him overdose. Then people were like, ‘No, if you really want to know about George Floyd’s experience, you have to talk to his best friend, Adarryl Hunter.’ Someone slipped me his phone number. I knew he probably wouldn’t pick up, but said that maybe they could tell Adarryl they’d had good conversations with me.
When I called, Adarryl didn’t pick up. I sent a long text message explaining what this story could mean in terms of understanding the conditions of Black men. He called me back. I was surprised. We Facetimed for four or five hours.
He’d had a tangential relationship with George Floyd’s girlfriend, who wasn’t talking either. I drove to an address connected to her, which turned out to be her mother’s house. I didn’t see anyone there, so I started sending these fat text messages about why I was there — that I came to Minneapolis because I thought this story was important, and that I thought if we could tell the story of George Floyd’s life while helping people see how systemic racism can influence someone, it would be a gift to the world. I told her whom I had spoken with before and suggested she might want to reach out to them.
As I sent that message, this older woman came out of the house. It turned out to be Courteney Ross’s mom. I started chit-chatting with her — I didn’t know what else to do — about the Rosie O’Donnell Show, my socks, all these things. As we were speaking, Courteney texted me back saying, ‘You spoke to AD?’ (That’s Adarryl). ‘Well, he’s such a private person. If he spoke to you, I need to go back him up.’
We sat down in her mom’s backyard. I said to her, ‘I don’t know anything about you. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Like, what makes you you?’ She looked at me and said, ‘No one’s asked me about myself in months.’ She told me about her history, then she started telling me this really sweet love story.
At that point, she did not want to talk about the substance use. I said to her, let’s keep talking, and if you ever want to talk about it, we can. Probably two days before I was supposed to file the final draft, a report came out — that the judge adjudicating the case in Minneapolis received — about a previous incident in which George Floyd told police officers he had taken seven or eight Percocet pills that day, which had been something that no one really had wanted to talk about.
I imagine they would have concerns that drug use would take over the story, and hold outsize space in it.
Yes. At that point, we had been in negotiations with Ben Crump and Anthony Ramonicci, the lawyers representing his family, to speak with them. Ben Crump said the thing he was most concerned about was the discussion about drugs because then Floyd was just going to become an addict. I kept trying to say no, not in a story like this, because we’ll be able to put everything in the proper context.
Later, we spoke to four of his siblings and his nephew. I said that I’d known George Floyd needed help; I’d known about the list of goals. Was there anything they wanted to say about the type of help he needed or his interactions with drugs? His sister said no and the question upset her so much that she walked out of the room. We thought we were going to do this story without it. But then came this court report.
I called Courteney. Some of the details jibed with my previous reporting that we couldn’t go with because we didn’t have confirmation. And Courteney said, ‘If I’m going to watch the news and continue to see portions of my life, I might as well just tell you everything.’ That’s when she started talking to me about the substance use, which helped put the pieces of the puzzle together in an important way. Courteney’s testimony — that she was in the same house, using the same drugs, yet as a white woman never had interactions with police like George Floyd had — was such an important point. So it was really a slow snowballing of trust over a few months.
I had wondered why those close sources decided to spend in-depth time with you but hadn’t with other national reporters (at least, that I had seen). What I’m hearing you describe is that this was more about your personal approach, and spending time to earn trust, than the story pitch.
You really have to consider the position they’re in. Not only did they lose their friend or family member in a very brutal way, but now the entire world thought they knew their friend because they had watched him die. When we approached them, I think they were expecting the same thing — questions about how they felt when they first saw the video. I never asked that question.
Sometimes in the manic rush to be first, we can forget to ask questions that reveal a person’s personality… ~ Robert Samuels
One of the people we talked to were Floyd’s roommates, Alvin and Theresa. Alvin told me he’d talked to a lot of reporters, but none had asked questions I’d asked. He said, ‘You kept on asking me, ‘Well, what did George Floyd say to you? How did you respond? What sort of things did he like? Where was he when they were praying?’ Sometimes in the manic rush to be first, we can forget to ask questions that reveal a person’s personality but also allow people to talk about the parts of their friends’ lives they want to talk about. I wasn’t in that rush. George Floyd had died two or three months before.
Profiles are always delicate because you’re trying to authentically reflect a person. In this case, your subject wasn’t there to confirm the details or be that barometer. What guided you to ensure that you were reflecting George Floyd’s spirit in the same way he might describe himself, or that others would say reflects him?
Sometimes we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do, so that’s not usually my test. But the details I put in were things about Floyd that different people had told me about without me bringing up the subject. For example, there is a point where I say that George Floyd squinted his eyes. When I would ask people what Floyd said when something had happened, they all did the same sort of facial expression. Many people said he would always start squinting when he had a serious thought, so I felt comfortable with using that sort of thing — in the same way that if my friends were impersonating me, they might do a high-pitched laugh.
How did you consider the tension between elevating George Floyd’s choices and personality as an individual, and the broader systemic structures he was operating in? The forces that shaped his life were, as you imply in the story, in many ways out of his control.
That was the hardest part, in terms of not having one part of the system — like Black history and its relationship to the medical system — be neither lost, nor overtake the actual story of George Floyd.
I looked at stories about similar things. One of Anne Hull’s last stories for The Post was about a white woman trying to get over her prescription drug addiction — one part of a series about white women dying at alarmingly high rates. There was another story by Kevin Merida, about a man who had been convicted of murder and was navigating what it meant to be a Black person on the streets, that was part of a series on “Being a Black Man” 14 or 15 years ago. (The series became a book edited by Merida.) I also watched a few episodes of “Black-ish.” There are segments where the lead character does this kind of flashback sequence that describes colorism, or Juneteenth, or some concept that might be known in the Black community but not outside of it.
I studied those and came to realize that everything we said about the broader systemic issues had to relate to George Floyd. I couldn’t go more than two or three paragraphs without mentioning him, just to orient the reader. It’s not a broken line structure with two parallel stories; it’s something that’s embedded in the DNA of this man.
What did you feel your piece needed to do, bearing in mind the other stories that would be part of the bigger project? And on the flip side, what did those other stories free your piece to do because of the ground covered elsewhere?
One of the things we’d known was that George Floyd had coronavirus, which gave us the ability to tell a story in Minneapolis. I had known that my colleagues were telling a story in Houston. So that meant I had very distinct sources. I’d have to have very distinct characters. The people in Houston had seen him throughout his life, but the people in Minneapolis knew him as a pretty fully conceived man.
The group for this series met every Friday. I knew many of the other stories were focusing on institutions. I thought that it made sense for me to try to do something a bit more personal. As much as I read about him, I felt like I didn’t really know him. This is so sad to say, but we’ve covered stories like this before. I know what it’s like to try to piece together any shard of personality to put together a story. At the end of the day, sometimes that composite doesn’t feel like a real person.
Because mine was the only story in Minneapolis, this also gave me an opportunity to write about something I’d been thinking about a lot: the relationship between society and the Black body. But also, that meant I did not spend a lot of time trying to figure out what his life was like in Houston.
I was taken by your lede. I’d love to hear why you opened with that moment in this chapter of his life.
Originally, my editor and I had a difference of opinion on the lede. We originally thought about George Floyd coming off the bus, like, ‘I’m here, I’m ready to do it.’ But you know, walking through downtown Minneapolis and seeing the Mary Tyler Moore statue of her throwing her hat in the air — I didn’t want to do that. I had this image of a Broadway singer coming to New York, setting down her bags in Times Square and being like, ‘This is my dream!’ I was nervous about that.
Instead, my thought was that we start with him walking in on the overdose. We played around with that, but it made the story a bit more complicated. The lens would be so tight that it would be hard to pull out. Because this series is about systemic racism, we needed to pull out super fast and walk through the steps of what systemic racism means for health.
Steven thought we should try the original way again. The real takeaway was that we wanted to introduce a man, who knew he was broken mentally and physically, coming to a place to get better. Not, ‘I’m here, I’m ready to conquer the world,’ but to build up the idea that he had one last shot at doing this.
You had a detail about it being due north, which struck me — the visual of going straight up, trying to start over.
I love musicals, and there’s a structure to musicals where you have a person walking into a world to set a scene. I thought of the beginning of Aladdin, which was the feeling I wanted: a man that was entering a world that, to him, would seem a little bit fantastical. All he knows is that a friend went to Minneapolis and came home sober. I wanted to create the feeling that he was entering this place because the stakes were really high.
Who did you imagine as your primary audience for this piece?
My mom. She’s a Black woman, but she came from Jamaica — both my parents did — so they don’t have a sort of preternatural understanding of the African American experience. My biggest concern was that this story would only be meaningful to white people. That would be a gift in terms of understanding his life — why George Floyd made choices he did, and why his death was so traumatizing not just for people who knew him, but for Black people in general — but I didn’t want that to be the only purpose. I wanted to speak to a person interested in the topic, who might not have the vocabulary or depth of knowledge in terms of social science research, but also wouldn’t feel like this story was so condescending that it wasn’t for her.
I was also really cognizant that this story had a lot of emotional weight for people with substance use issues. I couldn’t be glib; I had to treat this with a sense of respect and sensitivity because I had asked people in very vulnerable situations to allow me to hold their lives in their hands. I took that very seriously. I wanted to make sure that when they read the published story, they said, ‘Yes, that sounds like Floyd.’ Not necessarily that they liked the story, but that they felt it was an accurate description and contextualization of the person they love.
On a personal level, what did it feel like to report this story bearing in mind all that’s at stake and all of the people you wanted to do justice by?
It’s been a long time since a story has made me so nervous. I was dealing with a part of George Floyd’s life that people were using to justify his death. I didn’t want to excuse his behavior, I wanted to tell a story that was really true, but I also didn’t want a story that could be reduced to ‘A drug addict died in Minneapolis.’
It’s a story I wanted to get right. As the story ends, the fear in George Floyd’s eyes is the fear that practically every Black man knows. I remember, I guess four years ago, when I was mistaken for a protester at a Trump rally. The police kind of put their hands on me. It was very nerve-wracking. I remember saying to my editor, Steven, ‘I am just so thankful that I made it out alive.’ I actually thought they might kill me. And at the end of the day, someone would say the killing was justified.
It’s one thing to talk about this from a personal level, but it’s another thing to report from a scientific level and from the level of another person watching this happen to their friend. It was incredibly heavy — and then to have to write and rewrite and rewrite that scene, and those fears. It was incredibly tumultuous.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; Samuels’ responses are in blue. To read the story without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.
In Minneapolis, the physical and mental strain of a lifetime confronting racism surfaced in George Floyd’s final years
By Robert Samuels. Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2020
—MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd came to this city with a broken body and wilted dreams, his many attempts at a better life out of his grasp. He was left with no college degree, no sports contract, no rap career, not even a steady job. At 43, what he had was an arrest record and a drug problem, his hopes hinging on one last shot at healing. When you opened with this lede, did you presume the reader was already familiar with the ambitions (degree, sports contract, etc.) that you reference, eliminating the need to share context or “convince” the reader? And why was it important to establish the high stakes of Floyd’s “one last shot” right out of the gate? This story was the fifth in a six-part series, so I hoped the reader would have had some familiarity with Floyd’s life before he got to Minneapolis. I wanted to establish the stakes of his decision to move to Minneapolis really quickly. It’s a trick I learned from listening to a lot of show tunes — the protagonist’s first major song quickly introduces the background, motivations and the stakes of the story (Theater-nerds call it the “I Want” song.) That approach helps to frame the conflict instantly, especially in a story of this length that will have many twists.
So in February of 2017 he decided to board a bus in Houston and ride more than 1,100 miles on Interstate 35 almost straight north to Minneapolis. Waiting for him was his friend Aubrey Rhodes, who had taken the same journey a year earlier. Rhodes was now sober and working as a security guard at the Salvation Army. I love your description, “straight north.” It’s helpful to conceptualize Floyd’s journey visually, on a map. I have to give credit to my editor, Steven Ginsberg, for the “straight north” description. He realized that Floyd virtually went from one end of the country to another. When I mapped the route, it was pretty eye-opening.
“Damn, bro, it’s cold,” Rhodes recalled Floyd saying on what was, for Minnesota, a balmy 50-degree winter day.
“You ready for this?” Rhodes asked him. “You can get yourself together here. You can find a way to live.”
Finding a way to live has never been a sure thing for Black men in America, who are taught from an early age that any misstep could lead to a prison cell or a coffin. They have higher rates of hypertension, obesity and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely as White men to die of a cocaine overdose, twice as likely to be killed by police and, in Floyd’s age group, 10 times as likely to die of a homicide.
Public-health researchers and scientists once held that these disparities were the result of poor choices — bad diets, lack of exercise, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But experts are increasingly pointing to another culprit: systemic racism. Being Black in America, they have found, is its own preexisting condition. Why did you decide to quickly transition into broader explanatory context, so quickly after centering Floyd, as the protagonist, at this particular leg of his life journey? We needed to establish we were not simply writing about George Floyd for the sake of putting together a good profile, but that there was a higher purpose in understanding that his life is illustrative of how racism can negatively affect the Black body. By taking the readers through a relatively exhaustive step-by-step of how systemic racism functions, it allows them to see Floyd’s story through the lens of a broader issue in society. And one of the remarkable things about George Floyd, honestly, was that his life was such a vivid illustration of so many issues that many Black people battle.
“Racism is painful and hurtful,” said Ayana Jordan, a professor at Yale who studies race and addiction. “It is a trauma that is introduced into our lives.”
This body of research became popularized around 30 years ago when Arline Geronimus, a behavioral researcher at the University of Michigan, hypothesized that young Black mothers were in worse shape than young White mothers because their bodies were responding to a distinct type of stress. Other epidemiologists, such as Sherman James, had been finding similar patterns with different groups of African Americans, from farmers in North Carolina to teenagers in California. Even when controlling for income level, age, geography and educational status, experts found Black people were often sicker than their White counterparts.
Darrell Hudson, a public health professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in race and health, said studies since have shown that African Americans tended to have elevated levels of hormones such as cortisol, which typically rise as a response to stress. While those rises can be helpful in limited spurts — providing focus to pull an all-nighter, or increasing heart rates to accomplish a strenuous physical challenge — they also strain the immune system. That’s why students get sick after finals week or athletes can get so sore after big games.
If those cortisol levels remain high over a prolonged period, as has been found in African Americans, the strain makes people more susceptible to sickness. Hudson and other researchers concluded that those elevated levels were not about genetics, but racism. The stress of everything, from everyday slights to fears of a deadly interaction with the police, alters human physiology.
“There’s nothing different about how people respond to stress across race,” Hudson said. “The context that people live in is racialized, however. It’s about the chronicity of it and your relationship with it: Do you feel you have some control over what stresses you, without a herculean effort and a lot of luck? If not, everything piles up.” This is an excellent quote; it struck me as emblematic and sets a clear tone for where the piece is headed.
Racism also takes a toll on the psyche. Self-esteem falls and anxiety rises when people are trying to make it in a country where they are taught as children that they may never be given a fair shake. Scientists refer to this coping strategy as “John Henryism,” so named after the hammer-wielding African American folk hero who died of a heart attack trying to prove his worth while building a railroad. Why did you think it was important to include this? When I began to read about John Henry-ism, it felt so relevant, so true to any Black person who has felt they had to work harder to get ahead because of their race. Also, it wasn’t lost on me that George Floyd had a lot of physical similarities to John Henry. And now Floyd’s life was on its way to becoming a bit of an American fable. I hoped that readers would make that connection, too.
“You saw it in Floyd’s attempts to move from the protective, supportive, familiar environments he was raised in pursuit of upward mobility,” Hudson said. “The challenge of moving away to pursue opportunities can’t be overstated, in my opinion.”
Close friends and family said they witnessed those anxieties in Floyd, whose size, stature and arrest record played into some of the most pernicious stereotypes about Black men. From an early age, he knew his most fundamental challenge was to stay alive. “It’s the rules of the neighborhood and the rules of the house: Try not to get killed,” said Rodney Floyd, a younger brother of George Floyd.
Growing older, trying to chart a new path but ultimately succumbing to the pressures of his Third Ward neighborhood, they said Floyd developed a bad back and bad knees, high blood pressure and, according to autopsy reports, a weakened heart. And as he watched his friends die, the warnings he received as a young boy began to feel more like a prophecy. This is a striking, chilling sentence.
He went to Minneapolis to start a new life. But there he found that there were some things about being a Black man that he could not escape.
‘Try not to get killed’
Floyd’s mother, Larcenia, had instructions for a healthy life: Get your education to create a stable future. Don’t succumb to peer pressure when it comes to guns and drugs. Avoid the police.
“Try not to do nothing to make them look at you or give them a reason to turn around,” Rodney Floyd remembers their mother telling them.
George Floyd’s stature often gave people a reason to turn around. He was 6 foot 6, and he began to dream of playing pro basketball as his ticket out of the projects. So he leaned into the frame that made him physically different, pumping iron and developing a muscular physique. His friends marveled at his 300-pound bench presses and 100-pound biceps curls. During your reporting, when and what convinced you that Floyd’s body was formative to his identity and ought to be a prominent focus of this story? The reporting led me there. So many people who knew Floyd talked about the relationship he had with his body — how it was a source of immense pride and how it also made him incredibly self-conscious. Also, it’s hard to talk about Black people’s health without discussing their relationships to their physical selves. When Floyd’s friends and family told me about how he related to his size, I could not help but think about Wesley Morris’ essay on the cultural fascination with Black penis and college classes I took about Black masculinity, especially when it came to Black athletes. So my ears perked up when people started talking to me about these issues with Floyd. I have a bunch of books on my shelf that jibed with what I was hearing.
Because he could be so imposing, his mother emphasized that he needed to learn the King’s English, the importance of “please,” “yes, Mr. Officer” and “no, sir” — lessons that were more about preserving his existence than manners.
“You know how some people have a Napoleon complex? Floyd had the opposite,” said Adarryl Hunter, a close friend whom Floyd often relied on for advice. “He was extra friendly so people would not be intimidated by him.”
In Cuney Homes, the Houston housing project where Floyd grew up, everyone gravitated toward him. One day, over dinner, Hunter recalled asking him, “Let me in on the secret, how do you get everyone to like you?”
At times, though, Hunter worried that Floyd’s desire to be loved clouded his judgment.
It was in the small things: Sometimes Floyd would make himself sick eating at a friend’s house because he would not turn down their cooking.
And it was in the big things, too. He so wanted to be liked by everyone that he would find himself hanging out with friends who got caught up in drugs and the criminal justice system. Did this sentiment come from Hunter? Yes, but also, a number of people who I chatted with.
Hunter was disappointed but not surprised when Floyd ended up in jail. So many of their friends did in a neighborhood where there were few men with 9-to-5 jobs to serve as role models, few jobs to start out on their own and plenty of opportunities to get involved in the drug game.
Hunter said that Floyd’s life was moving in a more stable direction after his last sentence in 2013. A newfound faith in Christianity gave him a spiritual foundation, and he tried to be a role model in the neighborhood. He completed a vocational program but had trouble finding an employer that would hire a man with a record. Each rejection brought him closer to a realization that he might not have the success he long envisioned.
He’d spend his days ingesting basketball and football statistics in the sports section, dazzling friends with his ability to analyze the games and mimicking sports analysts on ESPN.
Following sports was Floyd’s passion, but Hunter figured it might weigh on his friend to watch people succeed in a place where he did not. One day, while they were driving home, Hunter tried to get him to open up about it. Were you disappointed you didn’t go pro?
Floyd squinted, as friends say he often did when he was trying to formulate a serious thought. “I’mma let you answer that question,” he said. Did the friends you spoke with all bring this mannerism up to you on their own, or did you ask about it after it was first mentioned to you? It’s a wonderful detail that paints a vivid picture of his affect. I realized that everyone in Minneapolis did an impression of Floyd when they talked about him. They didn’t just parrot what they remembered him saying; they’d cock their jaw in a particular way, they’d squint, their voice would drop. After the third or fourth person impersonated him in the same manner, I asked what was up. And the squinting was such a distinct, human act that I thought it would help him seem more fleshed out to readers.
Instead of making it to the pros, Floyd ended up spending a lot of his time outside Scott Food Mart, known as the Blue Store. Many of the men on the corner had served jail time and had trouble finding jobs, but they rapped about how lucky they were to live past 21. Some used cocaine and PCP, both of which police say Floyd tested positive for after his arrest in 2008. When a regular stopped showing up, the men wondered if he was in jail, or if someone needed to find a can of spray paint or a black marker to scrawl another name on a mural memorializing another friend gone too soon.
Every now and then someone would come by who looked a little healthier than the others — pudgier and with more vibrant skin — proselytizing about a place in Minneapolis that helped them find sobriety, solace and employment. One of those men was Aubrey Rhodes. This line about health, and the way health looks, feels important. Your words feel quite intentional and specific. What was your intent in using the phrasing, “pudgier and more vibrant skin?” I grew up in The Bronx at the end of the crack-cocaine epidemic, so I sadly know what an addict looks like. You see the jaundice, the skinniness. When I spoke with Aubrey Rhodes, I asked what it felt like to return back home after graduating from rehab. I asked if he thought people could tell he was different, just by looking at him. The description I wrote was his description, and it was also the description of three or four other guys that I spoke to about what sobriety looked like for them. I wanted the reader to be able to see the differences, particularly because one of the story’s themes is about the relationship between health and the body.
In December 2016, Floyd pulled Rhodes aside. Floyd didn’t want the other men to know, Rhodes said, but he admitted to him that “he was struggling.” Floyd wanted to be more than what he had become. I like how you sprinkle references to aspiration throughout the piece. Rhodes gave him the number of Pastor Johnnie Riles III, a preacher who believed he had been called to Third Ward to set men on a new path.
The depth of Floyd’s substance use in Houston is unknown. Dozens of his friends, family and family attorneys interviewed for this story were not willing to discuss specifics. Why did you include this? I feared the reader would think we were obfuscating Floyd’s substance use. But the truth was everyone in Houston was very protective of Floyd and didn’t want to discuss something that might be weaponized against his character. Even though the sentence was rhetorically disruptive, I felt we needed to be transparent that we did ask questions about Floyd’s relationship with drugs and we were not ignoring substance use to make the character more sympathetic. Readers are rightfully skeptical, so it is important to show the cards.
“We know he had struggles, because we all had struggles,” Hunter said. “What I saw in Floyd was what I saw with a lot of the Black guys around me: He had potential but was bogged down by whatever those systems are. So I knew the essence of the struggles. I didn’t know the technicalities, but I knew from whence it came.”
When Floyd came to Riles’s church, the pastor asked him about his criminal record, his employment history, whether he had been using. Riles said he concluded that Floyd “did not hit rock bottom” but needed a serious life redirection, the type that was hard for men like Floyd to find in Texas.
In 1995, Texas had stalled funding for its “therapeutic communities,” which were designed to help convicts get clean and reintegrate into society — programs that would disproportionately help Black men. Originally the state was supposed to set aside 14,000 prison beds for such services. A decade later, it had only set aside 5,000, according to news reports at the time.
By the time Floyd came to Riles for help, the closest treatment centers to Floyd’s neighborhood had been shuttered. Others were not inclined to take men with records, who had neither jobs nor insurance, in a state that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The way you move between Floyd’s story, and systems and structure, is really effective. You serve up these sentences in accessible terms and don’t leave the reader immersed in exposition for too long. This is something I learned from working with David Finkel, who writes and edits long stories but is impatient when it comes to discussions of policy. So when I’m in explanatory mode, I hear him in the back of my head complaining that I am boring him and try to get on with it.
The best solution was to send men to other cities and states where it would be easier to obtain mental health services. Riles suggested that Floyd go to a nine-month program at the Salvation Army in Minneapolis to develop life skills.
Floyd was hesitant but found inspiration in sports. The Super Bowl, which was being played in Houston, would be played the following year in Minneapolis. Floyd resolved to take the same journey. How did you come across this connection? A number of people in the story couldn’t remember precise dates. Every time I asked someone to pinpoint when Floyd moved to Minneapolis, the response was: What year was the Super Bowl in Minneapolis? I didn’t want to be too meta about it, but it was clear that Floyd saw the Super Bowl as a bit of a sign.
But when Floyd got to Minneapolis, he decided the Salvation Army program wouldn’t work out for him. He lasted about a week in it, Rhodes said. Instead, he chose a center that concentrated not just on health and well-being, but the health and well-being of Black men.
A turning point
In late February or March of 2017, Floyd walked into Turning Point, a sprawling collection of renovated houses on Minneapolis’s historically Black north side that host a 90-day recovery program. Floyd sat in the back, but he was an active participant in support group discussions, said those who were in classes with him.
Floyd noticed another large guy, who often joined him in the back of the room. His name was Eric Cornley. They bonded over their similar biographies — both were former college athletes who had moved to Minneapolis for a new chance at life. They were both large Black men who learned to be gentle and friendly so they wouldn’t scare others. They both sat in the back to make sure they didn’t block anyone’s vision. Again, details like these give us, as readers, a clear sense of Floyd’s consideration for others and his compassion, in a practiced and everyday sense. Everyone called them Big Floyd and Big E.
“Those two were like brothers,” recalled Clyve Jackson, 57, a fellow client.
The men had decided to lean into the recovery philosophy at Turning Point, which stemmed from director Peter Hayden’s experiences as the only Black man in his Alcoholics Anonymous group in 1973 — the year Floyd was born. I’m a broken record, at this point —̉ but you link together small details in a way that’s moving. Hayden remembered shaking his head when a White man told the group he felt like drinking because he didn’t want to give his wife $50. Hayden’s friends drank because they didn’t have $50.
It wasn’t simply an addiction that was a problem for Hayden and his friends: It was access to jobs, it was resources, it was learning to cope in a prejudiced world.
Hayden theorized that Black people healed differently than White people because society treated them differently. So he found some foundation grants and started his program in 1976. In addition to partnering with clinics that provide chemical treatment, staffers taught Black history to instill a sense of self-worth and prepared soul food dinners on Sundays to foster community.
They mixed the traditional 12-step program with the principles of Kwanzaa, and a standard step such as “come to believe that a power greater than myself could return me to sanity” was turned into “come to believe that a power within myself could return me to a lifestyle that would not hurt me.” The edit was designed to avoid the word “sanity.” When you first heard this phrasing, what was your reaction to the reframing of power outside oneself to power within oneself? Why did you feel like this lens was emblematic or important here, and what does this say about your subjects? Race is a tricky subject, so I wanted to make sure we had some concrete examples of what made Turning Point’s teaching different. The socialization aspects were interesting, but I really had the skeptical reader in my head, who would doubt the approach. So I kept on asking for examples about how things were different at Turning Point, and I thought the changes to the 12-steps were a really accessible example. First of all, as Hayden notes, “the power greater than myself” for Black people could be institutional racism- and that’s not really providing sanity for his clients. Second, because of the way Hayden saw addiction working in African Americans, so much of the discussion had to be about discovering an internal strength that could not be moved by the systemic shortcomings discussed in the piece.
“African Americans don’t like to talk about being crazy,” Hayden said, which he believed was a product of a long history of distrust and dismissal between Black patients and White doctors.
This distrust led to remarkable disparities in mental health and substance abuse treatment that went far beyond Hayden’s program. A recent analysis of federal data showed one in 10 African Americans said they had an unmet need for mental health treatment — twice as many as the general population. And those who did find help were more likely to end treatment early, citing factors such as cost, stigma and a sense that their provider didn’t understand them.
These feelings are particularly damaging when it comes to substance abuse and mental health, according to Jordan, the psychiatry professor at Yale University who studies race and addiction. Clients must trust that their providers take their concerns seriously and are treating them as individuals, not stereotypes.
But Jordan said there is a reason to believe health-care professionals aren’t conscientious enough, citing statistics that show Black people are underdiagnosed with mood disorders such as depression while being overdiagnosed with issues such as schizophrenia. The disorder is associated with more aggressive behavior, a dangerous prejudice that has been used to justify harsher treatment of Black people since chattel slavery.
“It’s like we can’t be depressed or we can’t be angry. We have to be out of touch with reality,” Jordan said. “There’s plenty to be fearful about with existing mental health treatment when someone providing care does not understand your culture. And what is the history of culturally informed care in this country? It’s abysmal.”
The persistence of those stereotypes influenced practically every institution that could have helped George Floyd as he came of age. Why did you guide your reader back to institutions at this point in the story? I really wanted to show the interconnectedness of things, so the idea that laws, science and history all have shaped George Floyd’s life and his ambitions was important. It felt like it would be a gift to help readers understand that systemic racism isn’t an abstract thing, but something that’s insidious and true and traceable. When drug crises ripped through Black communities, they resulted in the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the 1970s and the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that stiffened sentences, as well as the 1994 crime bill, which funded at least $9 billion to build more prisons. But multiple studies have shown those laws neglected to fund the job training, drug treatment and education programs they promised.
For example, the 1994 law promised $2.7 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development over three years for such programs, but a federal review shows lawmakers never sent the agency the money.
By contrast, lawmakers have steadily increased funding for those same types of programs when the opioid epidemic hit White, suburban communities. At least $2.5 billion was spent between 2016 and 2019 on treatment, through the 21st Century Cures Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.
“When opioid use started rising in White communities, the image of a drug user became the ‘accidental addict,’ ” said Samuel Roberts, a Columbia University professor who studies the history of harm-reduction programs. “But that was no different than how Black people got involved in drugs. They don’t go out there intending to complicate their lives, but I think that shows how we’ve been thinking about mental health in the Black community.”
The tilt toward criminalization had a direct impact on George Floyd’s health. The continued and aggressive police presence in neighborhoods such as his not only increased the risk of arrest — new research from professors at the University of Minnesota shows that Black people who have negative interactions with law enforcement have a heightened distrust of medical institutions. Even more, a 2017 long-term study conducted by professors at the University of Michigan found that Black boys who said they experienced discrimination were more likely to experience depression and anxiety as adults. What was the reason for introducing studies like this consistently throughout the piece? I wanted to ensure readers that these ideas weren’t based on supposition; that they are what science is showing us. I’ve had many conversations, both as a journalist and as a person who navigates diverse spaces, with people who have thought Black people were exaggerating or misreading the situation when they talked about experiencing discrimination and how it made them feel. So I wanted to make it as explicit as possible. In these cases, research helps.
And it also meant there was little interest in finding ways to treat those issues. A 2013 review published through the American Psychological Association found that there had only been 19 empirical studies examining depression in Black men in the previous quarter century and stated “depression among African American men needs to be at the forefront of our research, practice, and outreach agendas.” Wow. Nineteen is shockingly low. But gaps still remain. Six years later, Science Advances magazine estimated that White scientists were twice as likely to receive research dollars as Black scientists, whose proposals were more likely to examine disparities and inequality. I appreciate how you often return to funding as a means to quantify interest, and literally investment, in an issue.
Without more research to prove their treatment methods work, rehabilitation programs such as Turning Point found it harder to persuade foundations and local governments to provide funding needed to survive. The result is a medical system that is not fully equipped to help African Americans heal.
At Turning Point, Floyd would listen to counselors such as Woodrow Jefferson talk about how these systemic issues led to the demeaning and dehumanizing of Black bodies — using topics such as enslavement, breeding, the prison system and medical experimentation as examples.
“Have you noticed how people are always trying to profit off of us, own us?” Jefferson asked clients in a recent support group.
He told the men that history should not excuse their behavior but should be used as a reason for them to take even more responsibility for their situations, before another person does.
“You’re lovable, you’re powerful, you’re important,” Jefferson said.
It was during these sorts of lessons that Floyd began to open up.
He told the group what he was not willing to say plainly to Adarryl Hunter: how disappointed he was that he never became a professional athlete. He also shared how his relationship with his body was complicated, both a mark of pride and a reminder of his failures — an athlete who tried but didn’t measure up.
“He was a deep brother,” said Andre Cotton, 49, who was in recovery at the same time as Floyd. “Every time he talked, he wanted to talk about doing better and how God was going to see him through.”
He finished the program in the summer of 2017, and Floyd felt different, determined and sober.
Rhodes helped him get a job working security at the Salvation Army. It was there that Floyd met Courteney Ross. He walked up to her after noticing she was upset after having an argument while visiting her child’s father.
“Can I pray with you?” she recalled him saying.
“At first I felt special, but then I realized I wasn’t that special because he was always praying for people,” Ross said. But then he walked her out, she recalled, and his raspy voice “dropped another two octaves.”
“Can I have your number?” Ross, now 45, recalled him asking. “My little self was aflutter all the way home.”
‘My 6-6 baby’
They fell in love eating fruit-filled pancakes at a spot called Maria’s and rarely passed Five Guys without getting milkshakes — he chose the peanut butter and she’d prefer the strawberry.
“My 6-6 baby,” Ross said. “I would tell him, ‘you don’t seem tall to me.’ I don’t know why, except for when I had to kiss him and get on my tippy toes.”
Floyd wanted Ross to know upfront he was sober after struggling with drugs. Ross said she admired his dedication to staying clean. She, too, had struggled with prescription drugs and had also recently found sobriety.
“We were going to be on this journey together,” Ross said.
As a White child growing up in Minneapolis, Ross was bused to Black neighborhoods to help integrate schools. Her childhood and time as a high school administrator educated her about the gross racial disparities in her city.
But those differences became even clearer when they shared their experiences with drugs. Ross told him stories about being pulled over by police while high, with Percocet pills on her dashboard. She did not even get so much as a speeding ticket.
“I’ve done drugs. I’ve sold drugs,” Ross said. “I can get a job, people try to make me happy. The reason he has a record is that he’s a Black man and the reason I don’t is because I’m a White woman, and that’s as real as it gets.”
Meanwhile, she watched Floyd work multiple jobs and shifts, in part because his wages were garnished for child support. Because of his record of drug-related arrests, Ross said, the only jobs her boyfriend would be able to secure relied on his strength. Bodyguard. Manual labor. Security.
“The jobs that would want a big, Black man,” Ross said. “I saw how he was treated everywhere he goes. Everyone saw him as a threat, but that’s not who he was. He was so smart, so quick-witted. Sometimes I’d hear him talk and say, ‘I wish the world hadn’t gotten to you.’”
His longest-standing boss was Jovanni Thunstrom, who appreciated how Floyd would gently defuse fights working at Conga Latin Bistro. Thunstrom also owned several properties throughout the city, and Floyd persuaded his boss to rent one of them to him and Big E. They signed a lease for a townhouse with red shingles in the tony White suburb of St. Louis Park, near a day spa and a bistro now selling $35 sea bass. Nice details here. Why did the sea bass make it in? My journalism hero, Anne Hull, made places come alive through telling these small, seemingly tangential details that helped illustrate the type of world she was placing us in. So when I go out, I try to find those details myself. Sea bass seems fancy to me. I will also note that I had the sea bass for lunch after doing door-knocking in the neighborhood. For what it’s worth, the lunch sea bass is $28 and I had to fact-check the price of the dinner sea bass. But I digress.
As he settled in his new home overlooking the sparkling waters of Lake Bde Maka Ska, Floyd finally found a sense of tranquility.
Even the police seemed to be different here, he told friends. They smiled and waved, seemingly undisturbed at the sight of two large Black men. The friends set up a weight room in the basement. And even though Floyd and Big E had three bedrooms, they put their mattresses in the dining room so they could sleep near one another. “That was how they looked out for each other,” Ross recalled.
A few weeks after they moved in, Floyd told friends about walking in one night and smelling something foul. He looked on the mattress and found Big E face down, unconscious. Floyd called paramedics, who pronounced his friend dead. Drug overdose.
“That death messed him up,” Ross said.
After Big E’s death, Ross said, Floyd did not contact her for weeks because he needed to clear his head. She began to realize the depths of his sadness.
She said Floyd was pushing himself hard because he was terrified of going back to jail. When he spoke about the experience, Ross said, he would become tense and start to tear up.
He did not like standing in elevators or sitting in the back of cars, which friends said was a consequence of his time being locked up in a tiny cell. He took pills for his high blood pressure, and he developed heart disease.
But Ross said she saw the extent of his trauma in the summer of 2019, hanging out in a parking lot outside the Salvation Army. Four Chevrolet Suburbans pulled up, Ross said. Police demanded Floyd put his hands against the wall.
After police ran his name through the system, Ross said, Floyd was told he was free to go. No report was filed and no one explained why he was stopped, she said. Even with their similar pasts, Floyd was so often deemed a suspect.
“They did that to you for no reason,” she remembered yelling to Floyd on the way home. “This system is so sh–y.”
“Baby, baby, baby, you need to calm down,” she recalled Floyd saying as he squinted. “Be thankful. I’m so glad they didn’t take me to jail.”
‘I feel like I’m fist-pumping’
Even before that incident, his friends were noticing his ambitions starting to wane. They detected more than just a rut. They felt a diminishing of his will.
One year after moving to Minneapolis, Floyd began to tell his best friend Hunter that he felt his life was not changing as quickly as he had hoped.
“I feel like I’m just fist-pumping,” Floyd would say, referring to the high-energy, low-movement dance he saw at the club. This line is so visual and distinct. I tend to think of fist-pumping of celebratory or jovial, but this framing runs directly counter to that. So one day Hunter ventured over to Floyd’s townhouse, where he had two new roommates. Hunter insisted they sit down and write a list of long-term and short-term goals, so that Floyd felt he was moving forward.
The list included lines about reading the Bible, staying clean, working out. Then, more practical items: Get new tires for the car, fill out job applications. And, lastly, goals such as getting a commercial driver’s license and supporting his family.
All of these were harder than Floyd presumed. Floyd’s friends remember that his learner’s permit was held up because he needed to pay off tickets and fees in Texas. Floyd saved up enough money to do that, but then he had trouble passing the exam. And when he passed the exam, he had trouble completing the classes for the license because he was too tired from working at night. And if he couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay rent.
“Every time he took a step forward, something just nailed him,” Ross said. “It made me so f—–g mad at the system. He would try and calm down and say, ‘it is what it is.’ He wanted to be too cool to care.”
In May of 2018, Floyd’s mother died after having a stroke. Then came more deaths. People he knew died of diabetes or cancer. Friends from back home had been killed. Money got even tighter as he tried to send more back home to support the nephews and nieces whom his mother used to take care of.
Floyd’s new roommates, Alvin Manago and his girlfriend, Theresa Scott, noticed he had become more isolated. Instead of sitting on his favorite couch and watching ESPN, Floyd was more likely to spend time in his room alone. He complained about old injuries acting up and began taking pills.
Sometimes, his roommates would hear him reciting Bible verses. Other times they would hear him cry.
Behind closed doors, Ross said, Floyd had started using again. One Percocet pill over the course of the day became two and two became three. And both found themselves stuck in a cycle of trying to battle opioid addiction. The exact starts and stops are blurry, Ross said, but it became harder and harder to stop each time.
“We were a team,” Ross said. “We met sober, we relapsed together. We got sober, we relapsed together. We were in this constant battle.” I would imagine that while writing this, you’d want to be very intentional regarding which details to include about Floyd and Ross’ drug use, so that the use doesn’t overtake the other focal points of his story. In a story like this — where the focus is on systems, and systems that shape health especially — how did you decide what to include versus exclude from your reporting? Every detail had to serve a purpose, and they had to be provided in ways that were verifiable. A court document featuring a transcript of George Floyd speaking about his drug use gave us a lot more confidence in writing about what we were hearing from friends and family in greater detail. And of course, there was Courteney Ross’ testimony, which I found to be incredibly forthright and moving. We wanted to explain his substance use in a way that contextualized Floyd’s life but also reflected the themes about disparities in treatment that had been explained earlier. Anything that didn’t meet the criteria felt gratuitous.
Floyd told police he had taken eight Percocets when he was pulled over at a traffic stop in May 2019. His blood pressure was rising to dangerous levels — 216 over 160 — and the police and emergency workers asked him to allow them to take him to the hospital, court transcripts show.
“When the police take custody of you, you know, they make decisions best for you even when you can’t make good decisions,” one officer said. “We do this all the time, we know we can take care of you. This might be the time that you get to feeling better.”
After hesitation, Floyd agreed. During the encounter, an officer asked: Do you only take pills, or do you sell them, as well?
“No,” Floyd told them. “Well, the reason why I don’t get involved with that because Minneapolis has been good to me.”
After the encounter, Ross said Floyd continued to use Suboxone to treat the addiction. Into 2020, the two had been clean and sober again. Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic would change his life in multiple ways.
The virus was disproportionately infecting Black Americans, and Floyd had an asymptomatic case. Especially in the year 2020, this is a huge and significant detail. Why did you choose to introduce the coronavirus element at the end and not linger on it for long? Because Floyd was asymptomatic, and the diagnosis happened so late in his life, I didn’t want the idea that he had coronavirus to frame the story. I also wanted the reader to understand that his contracting of the disease was another thing that contributed to the pile up. In fact, many of the reasons Black people were more susceptible to getting the virus were because of the socioeconomic factors cited in the story. The virus was a symptom of the systemic problem, not the problem itself. The clubs where he worked shut down and Floyd found himself unemployed, as did one of every two Black Americans in Minnesota. Friends became worried — these were the conditions that would make a person vulnerable to another relapse.
“He was just idle,” Hunter recalled. “And being idle is not good — for anyone.”
Around that time, Jefferson, the counselor at Turning Point, said he ran into Floyd on the street.
“I need to come see you,” Jefferson recalled Floyd saying.
Floyd’s desire to return was not unusual. Jefferson said many clients go through the program two or three times.
“We are here for you whenever you’re ready,” Jefferson told him.
The nature of Floyd’s drug use wasn’t unusual, either. Three weeks before his death, the federal government published a report about the alarming rise of opioid misuse and death in Black communities. The concern was especially striking in Minnesota, which studies show is one of seven states, as well as the District, in which African Americans are more likely to die of an opioid-related overdose than Whites. It certainly feels like this trend has not gotten adequate attention in the “mainstream” news cycle. Have you seen it garner any more focus since Floyd’s death? Sadly, no. While attention was focused on White communities, another crisis was taking root in Black ones.
The crisis had only become more severe since the pandemic — and the reasons were playing out in Floyd’s life. He had lost his security guard jobs after the city shut down, had limited prospects and had fallen behind in rent — last paying his old manager $300 in May, all in $20 bills. His youngest brother, Terrence Floyd, recalled him saying that he was not a man who liked to dwell on his past because “that means you’re not focused on the present.” But the present was not providing Floyd with many options.
Floyd tried making more goals, looking to God and himself for some help.
“Let this be the day I claim victory over this dark situation through the Holy Spirit,” he wrote on one of his last lists. “you can get + gather ya self in da morning + feed your spirit. Follow that with your work out.” This is heartbreaking. We were so grateful that those goals were shared with us. It put Floyd’s faith practice in real terms.
One day in May, Floyd stepped out of his room to head out of the red townhouse to hang out with some friends. Scott, one of his roommates, stopped him.
“You’re not leaving until we pray,” she said.
Manago watched the two of them stand at the top of the staircase. Floyd bowed his head and tears flowed down his face as they recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.
“That was the longest I had ever seen them pray,” Manago said. “It had to be at least an hour.”
Manago waved goodbye. He would not see his roommate again until he received a link to a video with a text message saying, “Is that Floyd?”
The Wednesday after Floyd was killed, the men who had gone through recovery at Turning Point gathered for their weekly support group. The people in the room knew they should talk about what happened. But they just did not want to. They were numb, back in the cycle of mourning another Black man gone too soon.
“I was just sick and tired of talking because all of the talking just doesn’t seem to be helping,” said DeKolby Harris, who moved from Chicago. “It just feels like we can’t live. Do you see how they’re shooting people out there? Covid-19 killing Blacks. Police killing Blacks. Blacks killing Blacks. How can you win?”
“There is no coping,” said Andre Cotton, 49, who went through the program with Floyd. “I try not to feel anything because ain’t none of them cops give a damn about my feelings. I’m trying not to keep myself hostage to what happened to my friend. Because the more you hold on to it, the more it consumes you.”
“But you know what?” said Divine Mohammad, a 57-year-old counselor at Turning Point. “God had a purpose for George Floyd. His life changed the world.”
The men knew that was true. Administrators at Turning Point felt the change because organizations were calling them to train their staffers. “Everyone wants to do the things we started doing 44 years ago,” Hayden said. Local county governments were declaring racism a “public health issue.” Researchers like Ayana Jordan felt it, too, when they saw federal agencies asking for proposals to create best practices for culturally competent health care for African Americans.
Ross felt it when she poured out some pills to get high again, and put them down because, she said, “this is the last thing that Floyd would have wanted me to do.”
But why was death what it would take to change the world?
Floyd didn’t leave a street corner in Houston intending to die on a street corner in Minneapolis. It feels like these last two paragraphs are the crux of what you’ve been trying to build up to, and really say, this whole time. I almost feel like this could have been the headline or dek of the story. Why did you place that rhetorical question and the statement that follows here? I didn’t want the question to seem glib; and it could be if deployed too early. So I tried to make sure that the reader saw more than George Floyd’s efforts to get well. It takes on a special resonance when it comes in the context of his loved ones trying to make sense of George Floyd’s death, the heaviness of another Black person who is gone too soon.
Now those who loved him worried that people would dismiss his death as an overdose because toxicology reports showed he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, a point lawyers are using to defend the police officer whose knee pressed the life out of Floyd. The accusation felt like another instance of blaming another unarmed Black man’s death on his past.
“I’ve done everything that Floyd’s done, and maybe then some,” Ross said. “So tell me, should I die?” Consistently, Ross’ framing of her and Floyd’s situations — their commonalities, along with the stark divergence in how society and systems treated them — is highly effective at conveying systemic racism. Her voice is powerful throughout this piece.
His friends also knew strangers would see Floyd as an aggressive Black man who had to be subdued, a man reduced to his race and his record. They worried that jurors and the public would not see the man who had built up his body not to cause trouble, but to stay out of it; the man they worried about because the pandemic and his poverty created a perfect environment for a drug user to relapse. Did you feel it was critical to include the fears of Floyd’s friends, and contrast what other people might think with who he fundamentally was? His friends had fears about telling this story and they worried that, if they spoke honestly about George Floyd, it could be taken the wrong way. And, honestly, these worries are justified. Sometimes, we journalists think too much about the revelations we find and not enough about the impact our work will have on the people who entrusted us with those revelations. So I wanted to give the friends a chance to speak to the criticism that almost prevented them from speaking out. And in doing so, they help to highlight the fears and anxieties of being a Black person in America that were so evident on George Floyd’s face when confronted by the police in that horrifying video.
The man who was strong enough to retaliate against the cops but said “Yes, Mr. Officer” and “please” because that’s what his mother taught him to do.
“I know how my baby acts around cops,” Ross said. “He wouldn’t disrespect them. He would be too scared.”
It was the fear in Floyd’s eyes that his roommate, his best friend, his cohort at Turning Point, found so traumatizing.
Because, at the point, they didn’t just see Floyd pleading for his life. They saw their friend realize there was no escape, that the early warnings given to Black boys would become his destiny. Were you consciously trying to hearken back to your mention of prophecy at the beginning of the story? Yes. When I was outlining the piece, one of my working headlines was, “A warning. A prophecy. A destiny.”
They knew that fear. It was the fear of practically every Black man they knew. What prompted you to end on this kicker? What did you most urgently want readers to leave with — and what did you hope that they would feel? A newfound empathy. I wanted the reader to understand the fear in George Floyd’s eyes, even before the interaction with the officers became violent. And if this piece helped readers, empowered with a new understanding of the science, the societal pressures and the specifics of George Floyd’s story, feel a little bit more like Floyd’s loved ones felt when they saw that look, I felt like I had done my job.
Holly Bailey in Minneapolis, Arelis R. Hernández in Houston, and Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.