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How will we remember George Floyd?

Visitors browse a memorial to George Floyd as

Visitors browse a memorial to George Floyd as a new addition commemorating Daunte Wright is displayed outside Cup Foods on Wednesday in Minneapolis, Minn. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

Last May 25, George Floyd stopped being just a man and became a symbol. Suddenly he was no longer an ordinary Black guy enjoying a holiday evening in Minneapolis. He became a representative of all Black Americans whose lives have been disrupted or destroyed by our less-than-evenhanded criminal justice system. His death became the one that was one too many.

Now, a year later, George Floyd has become Exhibit A in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the man who allegedly killed him.

It’s an awesome thing to watch video of a man who doesn’t know that he has only a few minutes left to live. On May 25, 2020, death appears to be the last thing on George Floyd’s mind. In security camera video he lingers near the cashier’s counter in Cup Foods at the corner of Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street. He seems to be acquainted with some of his fellow customers. He smiles and laughs and goofs around with friends. A woman gives him a hug and he hugs her back. He buys a banana. At one point he breaks into a spontaneous shuffling dance. He seems like a nice guy. He buys a pack of cigarettes and leaves the store. A half-hour later he’s dead.

But here’s something else about George Floyd: Courtney Ross testified that when she first met him, she was crying in distress in a Salvation Army homeless shelter. A tall, handsome security guard approached her and said in a deep, raspy voice, "Are you okay, Sis?"

Ross said that she wasn’t, and the guard asked if she wanted to pray with him. The two became friends and then a couple, until George Floyd died three years later. Ross describes him as a sweet, caring man, a so-called gentle giant who took pleasure in life and in his family.

But Ross admits that both of them struggled with opioid addictions that began in the conventional American way, with a doctor’s prescription for chronic pain. Floyd suffered from back pain, possibly related to sports injuries. Addictions are hard to beat, and Ross and Floyd were barely holding their own.

I decline to romanticize Floyd as another helpless victim of opioids. He was no angel. He spent four years in jail for minor crimes, as well as for one case of armed robbery. He occasionally used heroin. As he was palling around congenially in Cup Foods minutes before he died, he was likely high on fentanyl and meth.

Of course Floyd was responsible for his own bad choices. But long before he became a symbol, he had an all-too-common American childhood. His parents separated when he was 2, and he grew up in the projects in Houston’s Third Ward, a traditional enclave for poor Black Americans. It was a hard life. But he was a tall, well-built kid. Sports seemed like his best option, both to him and to his coaches and teachers.

Floyd caught three passes for 18 yards in his high school’s state championship game in 1991. He spent several years in college on athletic scholarship, but it didn’t work out. He lost a decade to poverty and drugs. He probably struggled with disappointment, as well.

But he found new hope in his church. In Minneapolis he was trying to do better. I wish our society had done a little better by George Floyd.

Without minimizing Floyd’s own responsibilities, I wonder if we could do a better job of helping kids like the young George Floyd live in less poverty and with more security and dignity, with less desperation and more hope. I wonder if we could have given him a better education and exposed him to better opportunities than the unlikely hope of athletic stardom.

Sure, everybody is responsible for coping with the circumstances into which they are born. But good societies have responsibilities, as well. Unfortunately we’re still not doing enough to help kids like George Floyd.

George Floyd will be remembered. Too bad that it won’t be as just an ordinary man who had a decent life in a good society.

John M. Crisp wrote this piece for Tribune News Service.

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