Read an extract of His Name is George Floyd

One man's life and struggle for racial justice, by Washington Post journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa. 

A photo of the book His Name was George Floyd against a black background

“I love you.”

George Perry Floyd Jr. would express the same sentiment to men, women, and children; to relatives, old friends, and strangers; to romantic partners, platonic acquaintances, and the women who fell somewhere in between; to hardened hustlers and homeless junkies; to big-time celebrities and neighborhood nobodies.

Floyd said the phrase so often that many friends and family members have no doubt about the final words he spoke to them. He would end phone calls with the expression and sign off text messages by tapping it out in all caps.

“All right, whatever, man,” De’Kori Lawson said when he first heard Big Floyd, as he was known to friends, say those words. “I’ll talk to you later, man.”

As the decades passed, he came to appreciate Floyd’s earnestness as they lost people to gun violence, drug overdoses, police brutality, and other trapdoors awaiting young Black men like them as they came of age in a harsh, often loveless reality.

“D, I love you, bro,” Floyd told his friend during their final phone call in the spring of 2020.

“I love you, too, man,” Lawson replied by this point.

“We always said we were going to give each other our flowers before we died,” Lawson recalled. “And that right there lets you know what type of person he was.”

Over the course of Floyd’s final weeks, the fractured state of the world revealed the importance of sending love and f lowers to friends while they were still alive. By the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, killing thousands of Americans each day, shutting down scores of businesses, and leaving millions of people out of work. Floyd, like many Black Americans, proved particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s merciless assault. He had been diagnosed with an asymptomatic case of the virus and had lost his job after the Minneapolis club where he worked as a security guard was forced to close.

With most of the country on lockdown, Floyd spent much of his time on the phone, catching up with old friends and checking in with relatives back in his hometown of Houston. He had left Texas for Minneapolis three years earlier, hoping to reset his life and break free from addiction, but he had only just changed the area code on his cell phone from Houston’s 832 to 612, a signal of his renewed commitment to his adopted hometown in the Twin Cities.

One of those calls was to his brother Terrence, whose two-year-old daughter reminded him of his own beloved little girl, Gianna.

“My little niece, oh man,” Floyd said over the phone, marveling over baby pictures Terrence had posted online. “When I get right, I’m going to get Gianna down here, and you bring baby girl, and we can have our play dates.”

“I’m with it,” Terrence responded.

“All right, bro, I love you,” Floyd said before hanging up.

Floyd’s comment about getting “right” could have referred to any number of things at that point in his life. His attempts to stand on his feet in Minnesota—with the goal of ultimately securing custody of Gianna—had often resulted in his getting knocked to the ground. He was constantly tripping over both his own mistakes and obstacles beyond his control, not least of which was a pandemic that had caused his income stream to dry up.

'Sis, I don't want to rule the world; I don't want to run the world. I just want to touch the world.'

Floyd’s emotional declarations were nothing new to his siblings. As a teenager, Floyd would stop to give his sister Zsa Zsa a hug and tell her he loved her before leaving their house with his friends—just quietly enough to keep the other kids from overhearing.

Floyd had grown up singing love songs karaoke-style with his sister LaTonya, and when they spoke for the last time that May, they reminisced by belting out her favorite tune—REO Speedwagon’s 1980 hit “Keep On Loving You”: “And I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you / ’Cause it’s the only thing I want to do ...

As a young man, Perry, as family called him, had outsize aspirations— to become a Supreme Court justice, a pro athlete, or a rap star. By the time his world came crashing down in the months before his death, he had been chasing more modest ambitions—a little stability, a job driving trucks, health insurance. Still, in his dying seconds, as he suffocated under a White police officer’s knee, Floyd managed to speak his love.

“Mama, I love you!” he screamed from the pavement, where his cries of “I can’t breathe” were met with an indifference as deadly as hate.

“Reese, I love you!” he yelled, a reference to his friend Maurice Hall, who was with him when he was handcuffed that Memorial Day evening.

“Tell my kids I love them!”

These words marked the end of a life in which Floyd repeatedly found his dreams diminished, deferred, and derailed—in no small part because of the color of his skin.

Like millions of Americans, we watched in horror as the video depicting Floyd’s murder replayed on news programs and social media feeds in the summer of 2020. The visceral footage set us on a deeper mission, one to find out not just about the fateful nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds he spent gasping for air, but to pull back the curtain on the lifetime of striving that had come before, and to understand the heartbeat of the historic movement for civil rights that followed.

That mission took us to places we could have never imagined as we pursued two essential questions: Who was George Floyd? And what was it like to live in his America?

In answering those questions, we ducked gunshots after spending time with his roommate at George Floyd Square, the Minneapolis memorial that sprouted up at the intersection where he was killed. We sat for Sun- day dinner with his large extended family, dining on the blueberry cobbler and candied yams he had once relished. We got haircuts from his barber, with whom he shared his deepest internal turmoil. We traversed Houston’s Third Ward with Floyd’s closest friends, listening as they laughed over old memories and cried out their grief over a life cut tragically short. We went to church with his brother and to tarot readings with his girlfriend as they tried to make sense of it all, and then sat with them while they broke down when they couldn’t. Floyd’s loved ones responded with a level of candor and transparency that gave us a vivid sense of his humanity. Their memories helped reveal the suffocating systemic pressures Floyd ultimately could not escape, even as he tried repeatedly to reset his life and overcome his past.

In all, we conducted more than four hundred interviews to craft this portrait of Floyd’s distinctive American experience. We spoke with all six of Floyd’s siblings, as well as with his aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, lovers, friends, employers, teachers, coaches, teammates, cellmates, roommates, counselors, mentees, and more. We also interviewed scores of people who did not know Floyd directly but who possess an intimate knowledge of the societal forces that buffeted his path. Dozens of policy- makers, professors, police chiefs, and other experts helped describe the American institutions that shaped the course of Floyd’s life. Our reporting journey also led us to eyewitnesses, community advocates, civil rights leaders, city councillors, mayors, governors, senators, and the president.

After traveling for over a year through Houston; Minneapolis; Washington, DC; and beyond—walking the streets where Floyd watched friends die, standing on the fields where he chased athletic stardom, listening to the mixtapes on which he rapped his insecurities, reading the diary entries where he agonized over his sins, sitting in the treatment centers where he sought redemption—we ended up with a sense of George Floyd’s motivations, his limitations, and his soul.

Yet the more we learned about Floyd’s journey, the clearer it became to us that his life also provides a tangible example of how racism operates in America. Floyd’s story, and the story of his family, encapsulates many of the compounding and relentless traumas that have characterized the Black experience for four hundred years. Here, we have documented Floyd’s struggle to breathe as a Black man in America, a battle that began long before a police officer’s knee landed on his neck.

When George Floyd took his first breaths in 1973, the strictures of Jim Crow–style discrimination in America had given way to what would be- come a more enduring and insidious kind of racism, a systemic version that would calcify just beneath the surface of American society. The foundations of his story were laid centuries before his birth, with successive generations of ancestors battling the evils of slavery, abusive sharecropping, legal segregation, and intergenerational poverty from the Civil War through the civil rights era.

As he came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, Floyd experienced the residue of that overt racism as it burrowed within American institutions, entrenching itself in a manner that was on the surface more palatable but still produced the kind of racial stratification more indicative of a caste-based system than a meritocratic democracy.

Growing up in one of the nation’s most diverse metropolises, Floyd lived in a neighborhood that was racially segregated because the government designed it to be so. The crumbling Cuney Homes housing project, Houston’s oldest, was a modern sand trap of poverty from which Floyd struggled to escape. He attended segregated schools in Houston’s Third Ward, where the public education system funneled Black students into underfunded classrooms—and drove some, including Floyd, to believe athletics were the only route to success.

Police were a ubiquitous presence in Floyd’s life, harassing, arresting, and threatening him from childhood through his final moments. In all, he was detained more than twenty times over the course of his life, including by at least five officers later charged with breaking the laws they were entrusted to enforce. Floyd spent almost a third of his adult life behind bars, during an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately targeted Black men for nonviolent drug crimes and decimated entire com- munities.

Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, spent decades operating in a policing system in a country that imprisoned more people than any other. We have devoted a chapter to analyzing his American journey and the history of the police department that trained him to use deadly force.

While Floyd had long feared dying at the hands of police, his struggle to stay alive became more multifaceted as he suffered from a range of maladies that disproportionately cut short Black lives. In addition to COVID-19, he battled claustrophobia, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression—ailments that for the most part went untreated—along with drug dependency.

'I’ve got my shortcomings and my flaws,' he said in one video posted to social media. 'I ain’t better than nobody else.'

Floyd readily acknowledged his own missteps and the mistakes that made redemption that much more difficult for him. He cried to friends about decisions that he regretted and the despair he sometimes felt.

“I’ve got my shortcomings and my flaws,” he said in one video posted to social media. “I ain’t better than nobody else.”

Living our own American journeys as Black men has helped us understand Floyd’s essence and relate to his experiences—his insecurities over his size and skin tone, his awareness that his mere presence sometimes sparked fear in strangers, his nervousness during police encounters, his feeling that, as he once articulated, “people quick to count you out, man, but just so strict on counting you in.” We hoped to place Floyd’s experiences within the context of the myriad forces that operated in the background during his forty-six years, never absolving him of responsibility or making excuses for his actions.

As journalists with more than three decades of combined reportorial experience, much of which was obtained at The Washington Post, we have chronicled the impact of politics and policy on American life, from the White House and Congress to union halls, cattle ranches, college step shows, and racial justice protests across the country. We have had access to the Post’s vast historical archive of political journalism, which has helped us to analyze the broad set of policies that affected Floyd’s life, from the nineteenth-century black codes that made it illegal for his enslaved ancestors to learn to read to the twentieth-century drug laws that criminalized his dependency. We also benefitted from the Post’s most valuable asset: its journalists. This biography would not have been possible without the original reporting from the award-winning Post series “George Floyd’s America,” which included more than 150 interviews about Floyd’s life and circumstances.

Reflected in the pages that follow is some of the journalism our col- leagues produced along with us for that six-part series, which featured Tracy Jan’s reporting about housing policy, Laura Meckler’s story about Floyd’s academic journey, Arelis R. Hernández’s piece about Floyd’s inter- actions with police, Cleve R. Wootson Jr.’s article about Floyd’s experiences in prison, and Griff Witte’s analysis of the historical backdrop of Floyd’s life arc. Dozens of other Washington Post journalists, notably Holly Bailey, who covered the uprising in Minneapolis and Chauvin’s murder trial, also contributed to the journalism that served as the foundation for this work. 

The picture that emerged from the series and our subsequent year of reporting is that of a man facing extraordinary struggles with hope and optimism, a man who managed to do in death what he so desperately wanted to achieve in life: change the world.

During the fiery summer of activism that followed Floyd’s demise, his name would be uttered by presidents, prime ministers, and the pope. His picture would appear on murals and in museums around the world. And his posthumous celebrity would force both those who knew him intimately and strangers who only saw him die to try to reconcile the man, the symbol he became, and the systems that hobbled his ambitions and stunted his chances.

Lawmakers, police departments, and corporations would invoke his name as they rushed to publicly associate themselves with the fight against racial injustice. Congressmembers would affix his name to legislation aimed at addressing the ills of American racism.

His name would become a rallying cry for a movement that declared that lives like his matter. White suburban moms would march in the street alongside poor Black boys to demand that their country treat them equally. Together, they would shout, “Say his name!” and then they would jointly respond to the prompt with anger, frustration, and resolve.

His name, they would declare, is George Floyd.

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