On the life and death of George Floyd

RW Johnson writes on the man whose killing triggered a national revolt in the US

Sometimes even our fantasies may not be our own. Take Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Travis is a lonely, depressed Vietnam vet, drifting amidst the sleaze of New York City, frequenting porn movie houses and driving taxi passengers by night. His girl friend, Betsy, is a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palatine, who is running for President and when Betsy rebuffs him (after he took her to a porn film) Travis decides to kill Palatine. He acquires guns and practices his fantasy of being a tough-guy in the mirror. Ironically, things turn out flukishly different: there is a shoot-out but Travis is hailed as a hero. It could have gone either way.

Paul Schrader, who wrote the script, was inspired by reading the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who had shot George Wallace when he was a presidential candidate in 1972. So, in a sense Bremer's fantasy became Bickle's. But it didn't stay Bickle's. John Hinckley Jr saw Taxi Driver and adopted it completely into his own life, wearing the same mohawk haircut that Bickle (Robert de Niro) wore in the film and fixating on Jodie Foster, the child star of Taxi Driver. In 1981, acting out the part, Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

Bickle, Bremer and Hinckley are all examples of marginal people – bums, if you like – who might have lived out lives of sleazy obscurity but for the one moment that brought them fame. They have been in my mind because of George Floyd.

George Floyd was born in North Carolina but his mother moved to Houston, Texas, while he was a child. A tall young man (1m.93). George excelled at both basketball and American football and, like many a young American black man, hoped to be a hip-hop star, performing as Big Floyd in his group, Screwed Up Click. Having dropped out of school, his early dreams of a legal career – he wanted to be a Supreme Court judge – fell away and he adapted to a life in the Houston underworld, selling drugs, stealing and doing odd jobs. The court records show that he was jailed at least five times in a criminal career spanning over a decade.

His most serious crime was when, disguised as workers for the local water department, he and a friend gained access to a woman's house, whereupon they were joined by five further gang members. Floyd, the gang leader, pulled out a gun and pressed it to the woman's stomach. Thereafter Floyd searched the house for drugs and money (in the end settling only for jewellery). The woman screamed and was pistol-whipped by another gang member. Floyd served five years in prison for this but thereafter had another conviction for criminal trespass and several more for theft so he did not appear to learn any lesson from it.

Nonetheless, as he got older Floyd seemed to wish to reform and became actively involved in his local Houston church, Resurrection Houston, and tried to help his local community. Indeed, in this new role he earned the moniker of “the gentle giant”, helping draw young black boys into the church by teaching them a mixture of basketball and religion and sharing with them his idolization of LeBron James. He settled down with his girl friend, Roxie Washington and they had a little girl, Gianna, to whom Floyd was a model father.

But jobs were hard to come by in Houston for a man with a long criminal record so Floyd moved to Minneapolis where he took a truck driving job for the Salvation Army. This didn't last long and he then did several spells as a security guard outside restaurants – his huge size quickly quelled any trouble and restaurant regulars all spoke of Floyd as a cheerful, welcoming presence. In a second such spell as a security guard, this time for the El Nueva Rodeo bar, Floyd worked alongside another security guard, Derek Chauvin, though Chauvin was a difficult customer with a very short fuse who tended to over-react to the slightest sign of trouble and to use his pepper-spray rather too freely.

Floyd seems to have wanted to go straight in Minneapolis and to turn over a new leaf. How far that really happened is not clear. In effect he had left his family behind and acquired a new, kooky white blonde girlfriend, Courteney Ross. What does seem clear is that he had turned his back on violent crime. In 2017 he made an Instagram video in which he said that “I got my shortcomings and my flaws and I ain't any better than anybody else” - but appealed strongly against the use of guns.

Quite what George Floyd was up to on the day he was murdered is not entirely clear. He had just passed a counterfeit $20 note in a shop and the shopkeeper called the police. This brought along no other than Derek Chauvin who, unlike Floyd, had no criminal record and had accordingly been able to get a job in the Minneapolis Police Department. Chauvin was not in the least moved by the fact that he already knew George Floyd and, as we all saw, proceeded to murder him with complete insouciance.

At that point Chauvin already had 17 counts of misconduct against his name. George Floyd, a now somewhat reformed 46 year old, might have made a far better policeman than Chauvin. But we don't know: not only is Floyd dead but he was using both methamphetamine and fentanyl drugs at the time of his death. He had contracted Covid-19 in April, recovered, but lost his job due to the lockdown so he was once again thrown back on alternative means of subsistence, this time involving the use of counterfeit money.

Up until that point the most famous thing Floyd had done was to be a hip-hop performer and as far as he knew he died a completely obscure man. He would no doubt have been astonished to know that he had in fact become world famous – just as Arthur Bremer and John Hinckley Jr. briefly did too – and he would, doubtless, have also been rather surprised to see himself canonised in depictions of him as an angel with large wings.

It is difficult not to see George Floyd as a character from Damon Runyon's stories of guys and dolls on Broadway during the Depression. Most of the guys are involved in crime of some sort but Runyon describes this drily as “just minding his own business and doing the best he can”. After all, for a strong young black boy who drops out of school in Houston, what is there but sports, music and “doing the best he can”? He's from a single parent family – he calls for his mother as he's dying – and inevitably his own daughter grows up in a single parent family too.

But like most African-American kids when he's young Floyd gets exposed to hot gospelling ministers, choirs and music, making a return to the Way of the Lord a permanent fall-back possibility. Another black American who just passed away, Richard Penniman – Little Richard – was just the same. Like most of us, Floyd was a mixture of good and bad but he had turned against gun violence and did not deserve to die at 46. Passing a counterfeit $20 note is not good but it was just a way of getting by after he'd lost his job due to lockdown. Not a death penalty offence.

Of course now George Floyd is all but lost in the massive symbolism which engulfed his death. But we ought to think of the boy who wanted to be a judge, a boy with the dice loaded against him. You can be sure his mother thinks of him that way.

R.W. Johnson