I must admit that I have not watched the video of the full 9 minutes and 29 seconds that it took George Floyd to die under Derek Chauvin’s knee as he was being arrested. I wonder how many people have: after all, nine minutes and 29 seconds doesn’t fit well into a half-hour news broadcast. But in that time a giant of a man, pinned down by a little, cocky man oblivious to the entreaties of George himself and the remonstrations of a small crowd of onlookers, exemplified what the Uluru Statement here in Australia identified as “the torment of our powerlessness”. Since his death on Memorial Day 25 May 2020, George Floyd’s image has been painted on walls, printed onto t-shirts, and the demand to ‘Say His Name’ echoed around the world, spawning protests across the world sparked by, but not restricted to, his death. This book, subtitled ‘One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice’ looks at George Floyd as a person, but also the whole web of history, economics and politics that brought that knee down on his neck.
The book is based on more than 400 interviews with the people who were close to George Floyd. It is interwoven with explanations that knot together the specifics of Floyd’s life and wider historical movements. What this book lays out is the way that structural racism, built gradually by historical events both large and small, government policies and their intended and unintended consequences, and spoken and unspoken assumptions have constructed a web that held George Floyd under, just as surely as that knee did.
Although some of the interviewees, who knew him as Perry rather than George, imbue him with a posthumous sanctity that might not have been commented on while he was alive (a not uncommon phenomenon), there is no attempt here to hide the fact that George Floyd was struggling with poverty and addiction. A big man, he was very much aware that people were frightened of him. He had been a football and basketball player at school and college, in an educational sporting environment that prizes sporting prowess over educational achievement in a lottery of sporting contracts with little preparation for anything else. A string of eight minor crimes led to him accepting a plea bargain for a crime which he probably did not commit, and he spent four years in prison. He left Houston Texas and his extended family to go to Minneapolis, where he tried to start again but was drawn back into addiction.
But there’s a political and social background to all this. Turning back to Reconstruction after the Civil War, there was a deliberate policy of ‘take down’ as black families worked hard and some became successful, only to lose their properties through tax defaults and bureaucratic hurdles imposed on people who, when enslaved, were not permitted to learn how to read. Housing policies and red-lining saw neighbourhoods rise and fall economically; the state of Texas refused outright to desegregate their schools leading to a two-track education system; the plea-bargain system balances the possibilities of long and short sentences in a form of judicial gambling; employment possibilities narrowed once a prison sentence was served; State policies over health and welfare support acted as push factor (away from Texas) and pull factor (towards Minnesota) factors; the opioid epidemic linked the medical system and the street scene; the over-policing of his neighbourhood meant that a disputed $20.00 note ended up in death.
The authors are journalists, and certainly this book flows well. The backgrounding chapters give clear, historical information showing the almost inevitable conjunction of George’s death and the wider forces that had shaped his life. Although there are no footnotes as such, the page-number references at the back of the book give their sources, most with a web reference attached.
The book does not end optimistically. The Rev. Al Sharpton warned George’s brother Philonise that for every action there is a reaction, and this has proven to be true. The conservative uproar about Critical Race Theory and the ‘White Lives Matter’ rhetoric is a pushback and an attempt to silence. But I don’t think that you could finish reading this book without having a better grasp of the sequence of small events that constitutes structural racism, and its almost inevitable aftermath.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library