Book review: How George Floyd became an icon for Americans

  • "His Name is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice" by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa.

    "His Name is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice" by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa. Courtesy of Viking

 
 
Posted5/21/2022 7:20 AM

"His Name is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice" by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (Viking)

Two Americas collided in the few minutes that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, after a shopkeeper complained that the 6-foot-6 Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill at a store.

 

According to the new book "His Name is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice," Chauvin, a white, 5-foot-9 police veteran, had become a "cowboy" on patrol, a practitioner of rough policing tactics. He had grown up a child of divorced parents but attended good schools and found his way to policing after taking related college courses.

Floyd's childhood was starkly different.

Floyd was a cheerful child, saying he wanted to "be someone" -- a Supreme Court justice, for example.

But just surviving the drug-infested, poverty-stricken, violence-prone neighborhood where he grew up was an accomplishment of note. With better schools and a more stable neighborhood, it's easy to envision a different adult passage for Floyd, who failed to pass the exit exam for high school.

He had gone to Minneapolis on the recommendation of a Houston pastor who noted Minnesota's better education, medical care and rehabilitation systems for people with criminal records.

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And Floyd seemed to thrive, until he fell back into drug use.

Floyd's record of drug abuse, robbery and other minor crimes, plus his intimidating size, were offered as justification for Chauvin's tactics to subdue the much bigger man. But it's easy to envision a different life for Floyd that did not include a knee to the neck had he not grown up in a neighborhood infested with crime, illicit drugs and poor schools.

The authors, Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, say in the book's introduction that they don't want to absolve Floyd of responsibility for his actions but rather are striving to analyze the policies that affected Floyd's life.

And they do a masterful, thorough and evenhanded job of this.

Floyd supporters say justice was achieved in Chauvin's conviction but whether the case led to a national examination of conscience is tougher to answer.

What does seem clear is that George Floyd's name will be remembered as a prominent casualty of the racial and economic gulf in America.

He did as he said as a child "become someone," although not in the way he had hoped but powerfully nonetheless, prompting Americans to think hard about race and policing in America.

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