We have all seen the video record of what happened to George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. While viewers are free to interpret those images for themselves, it will be up to the courts to decide what crimes, if any, were committed.
Regardless of any legal determination, though, Floyd's personal story — as reported in exhaustive, heartbreaking detail by reporter Maya Rao and photographer Carlos Gonzalez in last Sunday's Star Tribune — illuminates a truth that some have been lamentably slow to accept:
Black lives matter.
Compassion should not depend on familiarity. It should not require such painstaking journalism to make us realize that Floyd, who was 46 when he was killed, had a life. But Rao and Gonzalez add details and context that make him come alive in the imagination. He loved and was loved. He was capable of seeing the best in others and of helping those less fortunate than himself. He was convicted of breaking the law and did his time. His life was far from perfect.
His life mattered.
In this story we see why those words have such power. What happened to Floyd, his neck trapped beneath the knee of a police officer for nearly eight agonizing minutes, becomes exponentially more painful when it happens to someone we know.
In the legal proceedings to come, defense attorneys will make their arguments on behalf of the officers who were called in response to a report that Floyd had tried to pass a counterfeit bill at a grocery store.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office issued its final public report in June, ruling Floyd's death a homicide. The report stated that Floyd "experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer[s]." It listed "arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease," as well as fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use, as "other significant conditions."
That Floyd relapsed into drug abuse is part of his story, but not the whole picture. People in recovery know that relapses are common. They like to say that no matter how many months or years of sobriety people have — no matter how far along the road they have come — they are always the same distance from the ditch.
Minneapolis is known as a place that is enlightened about recovery. Rao's profile portrays the city as the hope-filled end of a pipeline that begins in Houston. "If I stay down here," their story quotes Floyd as saying, "I'm going to die." It is painful to contemplate the possibility that, had he stayed in Houston, he might be alive today.
But in fact, as Floyd's friend Aubrey Rhodes acknowledges, living in Minneapolis is not what killed him. Breonna Taylor did not live in Minneapolis. Nor did Rayshard Brooks or Freddie Gray or Walter Scott. Nor did Eric Garner, whose last words presaged Floyd's desperate pleas of "I can't breathe."
Journalists know that sometimes the most effective means of telling a big story is to tell a little story. Floyd lived a life that was anything but little, except when compared to the national tapestry of Black lives lost in confrontations with law enforcement. He was a lone person whose life ended in a way that casts light on a tragedy that is national in scope.
This extraordinary piece should be required reading for all who serve in Minnesota government, for those in public safety, and for those who will contend for elective office in Minneapolis this fall. Like other major U.S. cities, Minneapolis is in the grip of a complex and stubborn problem. It demands responses more nuanced, and more substantive, than reflexive calls to defund the police.
To read "George Floyd's search for salvation" is to come to know Floyd as a man who was working to improve his life, who had a deep faith in the God of his understanding, and who should be alive today, contributing to society as a citizen and a friend.
Maybe feeling the pain of it offers us the best chance to move forward.