August 4, 2020

For George Floyd, a complicated life and a notorious death

Years before a bystander’s video of George Floyd’s last moments turned his name into a global cry for justice, Floyd trained a camera on himself.

“I just want to speak to you all real quick,” Floyd says in one video, addressing the young men in his neighborhood who looked up to him. His 6-foot-7 frame crowds the picture.

“I’ve got my shortcomings and my flaws and I ain’t better than nobody else,” he says. “But, man, the shootings that’s going on, I don’t care what ‘hood you’re from, where you’re at, man. I love you and God loves you. Put them guns down.”

At the time, Floyd was respected as a man who spoke from hard, but hardly extraordinary, experience. He had nothing remotely like the stature he has gained in death, embraced as a universal symbol of the need to overhaul policing and held up as a heroic everyman.

But the reality of his 46 years on Earth, including sharp edges and setbacks Floyd himself acknowledged, was both much fuller and more complicated.

Once a star athlete with dreams of turning pro and enough talent to win a partial scholarship, Floyd returned home only to bounce between jobs before serving nearly five years in prison. Intensely proud of his roots in Houston’s Third Ward and admired as a mentor in a public housing project beset by poverty, he decided the only way forward was to leave it behind.

“He had made some mistakes that cost him some years of his life,” said Ronnie Lillard, a friend and rapper who performs under the name Reconcile. “And when he got out of that, I think the Lord greatly impacted his heart.”

Floyd was born in North Carolina. But his mother, a single parent, moved the family to Houston when he was 2, so she could search for work. They settled in the Cuney Homes, a low-slung warren of more than 500 apartments south of downtown nicknamed “The Bricks.”

The neighborhood, for decades a cornerstone of Houston’s black community, has gentrified in recent years. Texas Southern University, a historically black campus directly across the street from the projects, has long held itself out as launchpad for those willing to strive. But many residents struggle, with incomes about half the city average and unemployment nearly four times higher, even before the recent economic collapse.

Yeura Hall, who grew up next door to Floyd, said even in the Third Ward other kids looked down on those who lived in public housing. To deflect the teasing, he, Floyd and other boys made up a song about themselves: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Cuney Homes kid. They got so many rats and roaches I can play with.”

Larcenia Floyd invested her hopes in her son, who as a second-grader wrote that he dreamed of being a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

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