George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who suffocated under the knee of a white policeman in the United States city of Minneapolis, has been described as “a loving person” and a devoted father who worked hard to support his family.
“Everybody loved my brother,” Philonise Floyd said on Tuesday, a day after the killing that sparked nationwide protests and growing demand for justice amid renewed accusations of systemic racism in the US.
“He’s a gentle giant,” he told CNN. “He don’t hurt anybody.”
The late 46-year-old moved to Minneapolis from his native Houston several years ago in hopes of finding work and starting a new life, according to Christopher Harris, Floyd’s lifelong friend.
But he lost his job as a security guard at a restaurant when Minnesota’s governor issued a stay-at-home order as part of measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Harris told The Associated Press news agency he had spoken to Floyd on Sunday night and gave him some information to contact a temporary jobs agency.
Floyd grew up in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s predominantly Black neighbourhoods, where he and Harris met in middle school.
At an imposing two metres (6.6 feet), that earned him the nickname “gentle giant”, Floyd became a star athlete in basketball and football at a young age.
“Quiet personality but a beautiful spirit,” Donnell Cooper, one of Floyd’s former classmates said. His death “definitely caught me by surprise. It’s just so sad, the world we’re living in now”.
Floyd was charged in 2007 with armed robbery in a home invasion in Houston and in 2009 was sentenced to five years in prison as part of a plea deal, according to court documents.
Harris, Floyd’s childhood friend, said he and some of their mutual friends had moved to Minneapolis in search of jobs in around 2014. Harris said he talked Floyd into moving there as well after he got out of prison.
“He was looking to start over fresh, a new beginning,” Harris said. “He was happy with the change he was making.”
Floyd found a job as a security guard at a Salvation Army store in the city centre of Minneapolis.
Later, he started working two jobs, one driving trucks and another as a security guard at Conga Latin Bistro, where he was known as “Big Floyd”.
“Always cheerful,” Jovanni Tunstrom, the bistro owner, said. “He had a good attitude. He would dance badly to make people laugh. I tried to teach him how to dance because he loved Latin music, but I couldn’t because he was too tall for me. He always called me ‘Bossman’. I said, ‘Floyd, don’t call me Bossman. I’m your friend’.”
On Monday evening, Minneapolis police arrested Floyd because he allegedly matched the description of someone who attempted to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill at a store to buy cigarettes.
In a widely circulated video of the arrest, Floyd can be seen on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. Officer Derek Chauvin pressed him to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck. The video shows Chauvin holding Floyd down for minutes as Floyd complains he cannot breathe.
The video ends with paramedics lifting a limp Floyd onto a stretcher and placing him in an ambulance.
His sister, Bridgett Floyd, said it was “heartbreaking” for him to die at the hands of police.
“That’s exactly what they did,” she told NBC News. “They murdered my brother. He was crying for help.”
Roxie Washington, the mother of his six-year-old daughter in Houston, described him as a devoted father.
“People mistake him because he was so big that they thought he was always a fighting person,” Washington said, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“But he was a loving person … and he loved his daughter.”
One of Floyd’s longtime friends, Stephen Jackson, became an NBA basketball star, but Floyd never let that change their friendship.
“We called each other Twin,” Jackson said in an emotional video post on Instagram.
“He was changing his life,” moving to Minnesota for work so he could support his children, Jackson added. “My boy was doing what he was supposed to do, man, and you all go and kill my brother.”
Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, said he had remained a shining light in the community.
“This is nothing but an angel that was sent to us on earth,” she told CBS News. “And we demonised him, and we killed him.”
Chauvin was fired by the Minneapolis police department on Tuesday, along with three other officers who were also at the scene. On Wednesday, Mayor Jacob Frey called for Chauvin to be criminally charged, without mentioning the other officers.
On Friday, after days of protests, Chauvin was taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter by state prosecutors.