Like 40 million other Americans in this coronavirus pandemic, George Floyd was unemployed, looking for work trying to keep his head above water, trying to provide for his young daughter. He other daughter and son were both grown.
He stood a hair over two metres tall, in good shape as most door bouncers are, and was known by his teammates playing on the South Florida Community College basketball side as the gentle giant.
He had some experience customising cars back in Houston, tried his luck as a hip-hop artist: That didn’t catch on.
Chances are that the world would never know of George Floyd were it not for a routine police call to a delicatessen after an employee accused him of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bank note to buy cigarettes. Within 17 minutes of the first police unit responding, Floyd was dead and America forever changed
At least when he moved to St. Paul’s five years ago, he had better luck. He kept two jobs, one driving a truck, the other as bouncer at the Conga Latin Bistro. Then coronavirus hit, Minnesota imposed a shutdown and Floyd was let go.
Chances are that the world would never know of George Floyd were it not for a routine police call to a delicatessen after an employee accused him of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bank note to buy cigarettes. Within 17 minutes of the first police unit responding, Floyd was dead and America forever changed.
His last minutes
Floyd’s last minutes were captured on video, handcuffed and pinned to the ground with Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck in a chokehold.
Gasping for precious air, in obvious distress and physical pain, Floyd begged for Chauvin to lift his knee off his neck. It was there for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“I can’t breathe.”
Those were his last words. Floyd died, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, three other officers charged with aiding and abetting murder, and their police station in St. Paul’s set ablaze as black Americans vented their fury at another death by US law enforcement.
Floyd’s black life didn’t matter — just as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray — all black Americans who lost their lives at the hands of police over the past 10 years. Did not either.
But this time, the anger is different — so too the response and the politics.
It’s about race
It’s about an America divided by those who have and have not; those who have might and those who have right; those who take and those who give; those who lead and those that follow a different path; a government of the people, by the people, for the people — or for people who make up a truth depending on the photo-op or the outlet.
“I can’t breathe” have become much, much more than the last words of a dying man. They speak for those who believe that the very essence, the very oxygen of American society, has been sucked out and used to fan flames of discord and anger.
If ventilators were needed for those with COVID-19, they are needed now oxygenate a society where law and order is breaking down — and respect for it too from the Oval Office down.
Army onto American streets?
How can America be great again when there are 40 million unemployed, 101,000 thousand dead from coronavirus, its neighbourhoods aflame and the president threatening to invoke The Insurrection Act from 1807 — yes, when slaves could be kept across its southern nations — to bring the army onto the street?
As peaceful protesters gathered in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the president’s Attorney General — many Americans would say William Barr does not act for them — ordered police and security services to clear them away.
By a phalanx of Secret Service agents and others in uniform, their Commander-in-Chief brazenly strolled to the nearby St. John’s Church on Monday evening to hold a bible in his hand — he got it the right way round eventually — for a photo op.
No healing words
There are no words of healing now — just threats that if weak state governors don’t get their act together, the president will enforce law and order and send in the military to quell this civil unrest.
America’s pulse is racing with rage, its body politic paralysed by a virus of hate, its beating heart threatened. The disease of anger eating away the US now has long incubated in the squalid Petri dishes and projects of its cities, on the wrong side of its tracks dividing towns, in its economic plurality and democratic deficits of the haves and have-nots.
In Houston on Wednesday, Floyd’s young daughter, six years of age, in a dress and wide-eyed, stood by as her mother Roxie Washington held her close.
“I wanted everybody to know that this is what those officers took from …” Washington said while fighting tears, her daughter looking up at her. “At the end of the day, they get to go home and be with their families. Gianna does not have a father. He will never see her grow up, graduate. He will never walk her down the aisle.
I’m here for my baby and I’m here for George, because I want justice for him. I want justice for him because he was good. No matter what anybody thinks,” she said, pointing down to her daughter. “And this is the proof that he was a good man.”
Yes. There is good in most of us most of the time. For some that goodness is choked.
If ever there was a time for goodness and generosity of spirit to prevail, it is now.
“I can’t breathe” has come to speak for a time when we are all slowly being asphyxiated by the heavy knee of this pandemic, this period, this presidency, this policing. Surely, we might all one day breathe free of racism and riots, batons and bigotry — doesn’t Gianna deserve as much?
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe