When 17-year-old Darnella Frazier videotaped the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, her action launched uprisings across the U.S. and around the world. After years of cops killing Black people with impunity, Floyd’s murder was the last straw. Five days after his killing, his young daughter Gigi said, “My daddy changed the world.”
Black journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa wrote His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice to tell the world who he was and why he was killed by cops on a street in Minneapolis.
The authors interviewed friends, family, teachers and more to tell Floyd’s story. Their research produced a vibrant nonfiction narrative. You learn that Floyd was outgoing and popular. He would easily tell people “I love you” or shake their hands to put them at ease.
They also explored Floyd’s family history. The reader learns his great-great-grandfather was a freed slave who became a landowner in North Carolina. In what was common in the reactionary post-Reconstruction era, his land was seized by white farmers. That began the life of poverty for the Floyd family — as it did for thousands of other Black families. Generation after generation of the Floyds struggled to survive as sharecroppers while enduring racism and wage theft. By the time Floyd was born, his family still worked the fields — still in poverty. They eventually moved to Houston for a better life.
Houston was marred by segregated schools that were poorly funded and neglected. The city, when ordered to integrate, enacted so-called reforms that were designed to fail and assigned Black teachers to other, whiter, schools. None of the decision-makers were from Floyd’s Third Ward. The result: the schools continued to be segregated and Black schools poorly funded. Only the most loyal, committed Black teachers remained.
Floyd was an average student with good writing skills. But he was encouraged to focus on athletics instead. Like many Black youth, he hoped sports would be a chance to leave poverty behind. But the substandard educational system left him ill-prepared for college.
The search for a better life
The book does a great job showing how Floyd’s hopes to better his life ran into a wall of poverty, crime, and an unforgiving economic system. To eke out a living, Floyd turned to minor drug-dealing, and did several stints in jail. Eventually he was charged with aggravated burglary. He insisted he was innocent, but was railroaded into accepting a felony plea agreement with a 5-year sentence to avoid serving 40 years. This all-too-common racist practice left him branded as a convicted felon.
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He eventually left for Minneapolis because of available drug counseling and support services for Black men. He also wanted to get away from the Houston police who targeted people like him.
Floyd’s life in Minneapolis did improve. But in the end, there was no escape from the cops, who cost him his life.
The struggle for racial justice
The Black Lives Matter movement exploded after Floyd’s murder went viral. The leadership of Black students and other youth of color inspired the nation.
The book describes the hope people had as they took to the streets. Many protesters seemed to feel that maybe this time, with Floyd’s death drawing so much attention and public anger, a mobilization of committed people could dismantle the racist system that killed him.
Bridgett Floyd, George’s sister, refused to join her family’s meeting with President Biden. She pointed out that Biden had broken a promise to pass police reform legislation commemorating her brother’s death, so why should she meet with him? Her boycott reflects the debate about whether change is possible from within the system or whether a more radical approach is needed.
The book educates on the vicious impact of the oppressive profit system that stole land wealth from Floyd’s ancestors. It doesn’t, however, draw the logical conclusion: the need to toss out the capitalist economic system that utterly depends on racism and sexism. And there are immediate goals worth fighting for, such as establishing elected civilian review boards over the police and slashing cop budgets to fund things like education.
Let’s honor George Floyd’s life and end the violence against Black people and all people of color for good.