George Floyd: The 'gentle giant' who became a symbol of the fight against racism

  • The 1.93m tall George Floyd was known to friends and family as a 'gentle giant' who wanted the best for his children.
  • Growing up in the Third Ward, Houston, Floyd took on the role of big brother to a lot of the local boys.
  • Floyd's portrait and final words, 'I can't breathe', have reverberated around the world, sparking calls for an end to racism and police brutality.

George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American whose killing by a white police officer transformed him into a global icon of the struggle against racism and police brutality, will be laid to rest on Tuesday in Houston, the city where he grew up.

Standing at six foot, four inches (1.93 metres) tall, Floyd was known to friends and family as a "gentle giant", a rapper and athlete who suffered run-ins with the law and addiction but who wanted the best for his children.

His mother, for whom he cried out when he was dying on 25 May in Minneapolis, moved to Houston shortly after he was born in 1973 in North Carolina.

He grew up in the Third Ward, a poor and predominantly African American neighbourhood in central Houston.

"We didn't have a whole lot, but we always had each other," his cousin Shareeduh Tate said during a memorial gathering last week in Minneapolis.

His second grade teacher Waynel Sexton told AFP that seven-year-old George had dreamed of one day becoming a Supreme Court judge.

At Jake Yates High School, he played the role of big brother to a lot of the local boys.

"He was teaching us how to be a man because he was in the world already before us," said his younger brother Philonise at the memorial.

Floyd stood out on the football field and excelled at basketball, playing the latter sport when he went to college.

"He was a monster on the court," said Philonese. "But in life, in general, talking to people, a gentle giant."

'Way with words'

He dropped out of college and came back to Houston to help out his family.

In the 1990s, he threw himself into Houston's hip-hop circuit under the name of "Big Floyd", where he enjoyed some success.

But he could not escape the violence of Houston's underground scene, and was arrested several times for thefts and drug dealing. Local media said he was jailed in the early 2000s for armed burglary, serving four years.

After prison, he turned to religion and fell in with the pastor of a church in the Third Ward, using his notoriety and his love of basketball star Lebron James to draw in young men to the ministry, where he taught them religion and coached them in basketball.

"He was powerful, he had a way with words," said Philonese.

Floyd moved to Minneapolis in 2014 for a "change of scenery" and to look for more stable employment to help support the mother of his newborn daughter Gianna.

He worked as a truck driver for the Salvation Army and then as a bouncer at a bar, a job he lost when the city's restaurants shut down because of the pandemic.

"I got my shortcomings and my flaws, and I ain't better than nobody else," Floyd wrote on Instagram in 2017.

"But, man, the shootings that's going on, man, I don't care what religion you're from, man, or where you're at, man. I love you, and God love you, man. Put them guns down, man."

Delivering justice

But on 25 May, Floyd died a drawn-out death by asphyxiation with a police officer's knee on his neck – his killing, filmed by bystanders, instantly going viral around the world.

He had just bought cigarettes with a forged $20 bill and had taken fentanyl, a powerful opioid.

His final words – "I can't breathe" – and his portrait have been beamed around the world, together with demands of African Americans for an end to racism and police brutality.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 08: People visit a memorial
People visit a memorial and mural that honours George Floyd at the Scott Food Mart corner store in Houstons Third Ward where Mr. Floyd grew up. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"I want justice for him, and I want justice for him because he was good. No matter what anybody thinks, he was good," said Roxie Washington, the mother of his daughter Gianna, who is now six.

Floyd was to be buried on Tuesday next to his mother Larcenia, who died in 2018 and whose nickname "Cissy" he had tattooed on his chest.

Residents of the Third Ward in Houston, where he grew up, have already paid their respects with two murals.

One, painted on the red brick wall of the social housing block where Floyd grew up, shows "Big Floyd" with angel's wings and a halo around his head.

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