George Floyd Described As A 'Gentle Giant' By Friends

May 28, 2020
Originally published on May 29, 2020 11:15 am

Friends of George Floyd watched in disbelief as the now-viral video played. It shows a handcuffed black man facedown on the street, pleading for his life. He's struggling to breathe as he's pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer's knee pressing into his neck.

The black man in the video was identified as Floyd, 46. He died Monday after he was taken to a hospital.

Friends describe him as a "gentle giant" — he was 6 feet, 7 inches — who grew up in Houston's Third Ward, a center of the city's African American community. A vigil was held this week at Houston's Emancipation Park, in the neighborhood where Floyd grew up.

He was remembered by friend Johnny Phillips, who told Houston's Fox affiliate that Floyd "was just a young guy that was athletic, fun to be around and was lovable."

Former NBA star Stephen Jackson met Floyd in high school, and they remained friends.

"He played two sports — football and basketball," Jackson said, speaking to the syndicated radio program The Breakfast Club.

Houston Public Media reports that Floyd was "talented enough to get a basketball scholarship from Florida State University." He didn't finish college there, instead returning to Houston to pursue another passion — making music. For a while in the 1990s, he performed under the name Big Floyd and collaborated with other artists in the local hip-hop scene.

Jackson said that where he and Floyd grew up, there could be a lot of fighting between neighborhoods. But he said Floyd was someone everyone liked.

"It makes me angry. It just hurts that people have that much hate," said Jackson, referring to the officers involved. Jackson says he worries about Floyd's two daughters now that they've lost their dad.

Jackson says Floyd moved to Minneapolis for work, driving trucks. He says Floyd was pulling his life back together after getting in trouble with the law and spending time in jail. By most accounts, Floyd was doing well in Minneapolis, where he found a new community.

The Star Tribune reports that for years Floyd had a security job at Conga Latin Bistro and was known for giving hugs to regulars. The restaurant's Facebook page paid tribute to Floyd, saying "he was a peaceful and loving man" who wouldn't have liked the "violence, vandalism and riots."

A second night of protests turned violent in the city, prompting Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to activate the National Guard on Thursday. But family and friends say they want the focus to be on Floyd, saying he was a good person.

"We need to see justice happen," his cousin Shareeduh Tate told CBS This Morning. She called Floyd's death a murder and wants police prosecuted. "We want to see them arrested. We want to see them charged. We want to see them convicted for what they did."

The four police officers involved in the arrest have been fired.

In a joint statement, U.S Attorney Erica MacDonald and FBI Special Agent in Charge Rainer Drolshagen said they "are conducting a robust criminal investigation" headed by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the FBI's Minneapolis field office.

"If it is determined that there has been a violation of federal law, criminal charges will be sought," the statement said.

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In Minneapolis, there are calls for calm after two nights of violent protests over the death of a black man taken into police custody. By now, many of us have seen the video of the man gasping for breath as a white officer kneels on his neck for almost eight minutes. The man pleading for his life in that video is George Floyd. NPR's Jeff Brady has been learning more about him. He joins me now.

Hi, Jeff.


KELLY: So George Floyd was 46 years old. He died in Minneapolis, but that's not where he's from.

BRADY: Right. George Floyd grew up in Houston's Third Ward. That's the center of the city's African American community. And over the last couple days, there've been vigils held there. Old friends and neighbors say that he was athletic; he was lovable; he was a fun person to be around. And for a while in the 1990s in Houston, he was a rapper, even collaborating with some fairly big names in Texas.

Also, former professional basketball player Stephen Jackson - he says he knew Floyd from growing up there. Jackson says Floyd played two sports in high school, football and basketball. And speaking on the syndicated radio show "The Breakfast Club," Jackson said he and Floyd grew up in a place where there could be a lot of fighting between neighborhoods. But he says Floyd was one of those people everyone liked, which is why Jackson got emotional when he started thinking about what happened to his friend.


STEPHEN JACKSON: It make me angry, dog. It makes me angry, bruh (ph). It makes me angry, dog, 'cause I know how I move. And I show everybody love, man. And I just can't - it just hurt that people have that much hate, man. You know what I'm saying?

BRADY: Jackson also says he worries about Floyd's two daughters. He says he feels really bad about them losing their dad.

KELLY: Do we know what took George Floyd from Houston to Minneapolis? Why'd he move?

BRADY: Well, Stephen Jackson says Floyd moved there for work. He was going up there to drive trucks. It sounds like Floyd was trying to pull his life back together. He'd gotten into some trouble with the law.

But since moving to Minneapolis, he clearly found a new community. The Star Tribune newspaper reports that for years, Floyd worked at a place called Conga Latin Bistro. He was called Big Floyd there. He worked as a security guard and was known for giving hugs to the regulars at that establishment. There's a photo of him working and wearing a dapper suit. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic - that club was closed. But people who knew him say he was more than just an employee there - that many considered him a friend.

KELLY: What are we hearing, Jeff, from the people who knew and loved George Floyd best, his family?

BRADY: Yeah. His brother, Philonise Floyd - he was on "CBS This Morning." And this is what he had to say.


PHILONISE FLOYD: Just thinking how amazing my brother was - he never did anything to nobody. Everybody loved my brother. I just don't understand why people want to hurt people, kill people. They didn't have to do that to my brother.

BRADY: You know, one thing I heard several times is that Floyd was this big, strong guy, and he wanted to be the protector. And I think that's why that video of him on the ground and helpless has shocked so many of the people who knew him.

KELLY: That video and the death itself have now sparked two nights of violent protests. I know the police officers involved were fired. There are federal criminal investigations underway. What do his friends, what do his family want to happen now?

BRADY: They want to see - they say they want to see the criminal justice system work the way that it's supposed to. Floyd's cousin Shareeduh Tate - she also spoke on CBS.


SHAREEDUH TATE: We need to see justice happen. In this case, this was clearly murder. We want to see them arrested. We want to see them charged. We want to see them convicted for what they did. He did not deserve what happened to him.

BRADY: So there's some real anger that people are feeling.

KELLY: Yeah.

BRADY: And they're not just thinking about George Floyd...

KELLY: Right.

BRADY: ...But the many other black men who have died in police custody. And they want to see real change.

KELLY: That is NPR's Jeff Brady. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.