The Rise and Fall of George Floyd

“Until philosophers are kings and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, cities will never have rest from evil.” –Plato

George Floyd

On May 25, 2020, a day that became a dividing line for people across America, an amiable 46-year-old African American walked into a convenience store around 8 p.m. and politely asked for a pack of cigarettes. George Floyd had recently lost his job and was recovering from Covid, explaining why he paid with a $20 counterfeit bill. As he tore open the pack, he could not have known he was living on borrowed time, and the last chapter of his unhappy life was about to end. The only thing standing between him and death was a rendezvous in the parking lot with Derek Chauvin. Sometimes those who fall the shortest distance hit the hardest.

Floyd’s rendezvous with destiny should never have happened. He certainly should never have been under Derek Chauvin’s knee but just as assuredly he didn’t need to be strung out on the sidewalk. In a country of unlimited wealth where city mayors waste billions of dollars on consultants that recycle the funds in the form of campaign donations, fixing his problem wasn’t easy but it was cheap by comparison to the carnage that followed. After his death, there was an outpouring of compassion and anger on social media, but those are constructs to express rage against the machine while we march to the beat of a different bummer.

When we lose a life like George Floyd’s, there are bound to be a wide set of reactions. Some see tragedy while others find opportunity. For example, political leaders dutifully mourn at the altar of Twitter and Facebook for fundraising and vote-getting potential. They will say or do anything to get on the right side of a meme. The rest of us do not have to fall for it. Instead, we should look for those who genuinely express grief privately and not let social media “influencers” take control of the narrative. Cogito ergo tweet (I think, therefore I tweet) is not a formula for a civilized society.

His was a different journey. Floyd was born in North Carolina on October 14, 1973. His parents divorced when he turned two, and Floyd’s mother took the boy to Houston, where they lived in public housing. He grew to 6'6" as he got older and became captain of his high school basketball team. After graduating, Floyd enrolled at Texas A&M where he was a star on the basketball court. the first family member to go to college. It looked like he was going places.

Whether he became restless or had other issues we can’t be sure, but shortly after his freshman year, he experienced what is called “freshman melt”. Kids drop out of college and wander around to places like Austin or San Francisco to find themselves but mostly end up in halfway houses or worse. Most want to return to college. In Floyd’s case, he tried his hand at becoming a hip-hop singer in 1995. There was no easy way out and had a mentor or parent been on hand things might have turned out differently.

Floyd headed straight downwards. Over the next twelve years he was convicted of eight felony charges and sentenced to four years in prison in 2007. The crime was aggravated robbery. The details do not make for pleasant reading. He was arrested on the charge for which he would to go prison when he was 33 years old, according to the complaint filed. Floyd was one of several burglars who forced their way into the home of a woman, then he held a gun to her stomach before his accomplice hit her in the head as she screamed for help. Floyd went from aiming basketballs to aiming a loaded gun.

When he was released from prison, Floyd moved to Minneapolis to start a new life. The gods of irony were on the opposing team, however, and the first play was when Floyd was detained by Minneapolis police in May 2019 while driving an unlicensed car. He became agitated and showed signs of mental instability. This time the police encouraged him to relax and called an ambulance. It demonstrates how random life can be. One day he got the treatment he deserved. The next wouldn’t go so well. It was a pilot episode of a crime show that would rerun one year later.

Floyd’s next move was a bouncer at the El Nuevo Rodeo club (where ironically, Derek Chauvin worked off-duty). When the pandemic hit Minnesota in 2020, he was looking for another job before contracting COVID-19 in April, about a month before the counterfeit money incident. Everything was going wrong, and he began to spiral into the final chapter of his life.

Trying to isolate contributing factors in life like Floyd’s is like tracing the origin of a soggy plank floating insistently downstream. We aren’t certain how it got here, but we know it belongs to someone. His tragedy started upstream long before the loss of a job and income, lack of community outreach, and the availability of opioids. These things are cumulative, which is why it is so hard to pinpoint a single factor, but most likely it began with the deterioration of his family.

Our need for family or social structure is nothing new. Even as far back as Victorian England, society made provisions for people down on their luck by sending them to the ‘poor house‘ and through direct private philanthropy. If they lived in your village it was your problem. The Victorians believed that providing structure to someone in trouble gave the best guarantee of success. Now instead of structure we offer “services.” When someone’s life is in freefall, accessing welfare services is like trying to take medication while riding a roller coaster.

The days that followed saw rioting and mayhem across the country while the key principals in Minneapolis and Washington D.C. spent their days in front of cameras raving about the police. It was a show trial. The mayor, attorney general, and city administration contributed to George Floyd’s death no less than other factors, although none were held accountable. They were responsible for recruiting and training police, lack of social services and counseling, and creating an environment where law enforcement and citizens fear each other so much they react violently.

What is still missing from the narrative is the real locus of the problem. It was a failure of imagination. Problems like Floyd’s do not respond to irritating restrictions and bureaucracy such as you get when in the grasp of social welfare. Those do nothing more than maintain civil servants’ pensions and benefits. When Floyd’s life came apart he lurched into a deep, dark hole from which he never recovered because there was no job, no training, no support system, no family to recover to. He needed a real big brother, not George Orwell’s big brother. It is why the social construct of a racist society does not hold up to reality. Although the America that watched Floyd’s last gasping moments is bitterly divided by racism it isn’t racist, just dystopian, a far more challenging circumstance.

This is not to be unsympathetic to the challenges of dysfunction. On the contrary, bad habits manifest themselves as survival skills. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” said Willy Loman, one of the greatest bank robbers in history. He robbed banks because he could not think of an alternative approach for his skills. When someone is a repeat offender as Floyd was, the end gets nearer every day. As Einstein said of insanity, “it’s doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

If we find ourselves in the middle of another tragedy like George Floyd’s, let’s assign responsibility more broadly, downstream as well as upstream. Chauvin had no business as a law enforcement officer placing his knee on George FLoyd’s throat, much less for nine minutes, and in his case justice has been served. But his family, friends, and the Minneapolis mayor’s and district attorney’s office that oversee police recruitment, training, and culture, all bear some collective responsibility. Had they been more actively engaged in his life before he was a martyr — as they became after he was front-page news and a Gofundme magnet — George Floyd could have been a pro basketball player or rap artist, not a lost soul passing counterfeit bills.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes