The Public Death of George Floyd

George Floyd died Monday after a police officer cuffed him and pinned him to the ground by the neck. Video footage of the incident, clearly depicting a white officer pushing his knee into the black victim’s throat while he lies flat on the ground, has incited fierce online backlash and has resulted in the termination of four officers involved. On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters flooded the streets of Minneapolis, where the apparent injustice occurred, many of whom shouted the now-infamous refrain, “I can’t breathe.”

The words evoke memories of the death of Eric Garner, a black New York man who similarly died by asphyxiation by a white police officer in 2016. Garner’s final words as depicted in a video of his death, “I can’t breathe,” eerily echo in the now-viral footage of George Floyd’s final moments, where he begs the officer to remove the knee from his neck, begging, “Please, I can’t breathe.”

But the devastating last words are not the only things that these incidents share in common. As many have declared online, Floyd’s death is not a standalone instance, but rather one in a long, dark history of violent law enforcement against Americans of color. Just three weeks ago, Georgia authorities came under national scrutiny after the publication of a video depicting the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger killed by white neighbors.

“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey in a statement in which he called upon the FBI to conduct an investigation of Floyd’s death. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes.”

Floyd’s Arrest and Death

On Monday evening, the Minneapolis Police Department says that it was responding to a call about a man suspected of forgery, when officers found Floyd sitting in top of a blue car. The statement says that Floyd “appeared to be under the influence.”

The statement then says he “was ordered to step from his car” and “after he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” It says that officers then called for an ambulance.

Little is known about the moments between Floyd’s cuffing and his death, but at some point Floyd was physically pinned to the ground by an officer who forced his knee onto Floyd’s neck. As Floyd begged for mercy, bystanders can also be heard in the video imploring the officer to stop, pointing out that Floyd could not breathe and that his nose was bleeding. An ambulance medic then arrives and checks Floyd for a pulse before lifting him onto a stretcher and taking him to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 9:25 PM.

Authorities have confirmed that all officers involved were wearing body cameras, so additional footage illustrating the moments leading up to Floyd’s death may ultimately be available.

Fallout and Investigation

Mayor Frey has since announced that the four officers involved have been fired and that his office will do its best to be “as transparent as possible.”

“It’s the kind of thing where you don’t hide from the truth, you lean into it, because our city is going to be better off for it, no matter how ugly, awful it is,” Frey said. “If it points out the institutional racism that we are still working through right now, well, good — it means that we’ve got a lot of work to go.”

At Frey’s behest, the FBI is now conducting a federal civil rights investigation into the incident.

The Minneapolis police union has made no official statement at this time, though the head of the union, Lt. Bob Kroll, told a local media outlet that people should not rush to a conclusion while the investigation is still under way. “Our officers are fully cooperating,” Kroll said. “We must review all video. We must wait for the medical examiner’s report.”

Protests in the street

Hundreds of protesters gathered on Tuesday at the intersection where Floyd was abused, calling out the police’s conduct and demanding justice for the victim’s family. Some chanted “No justice, no peace,” while others cried “I can’t breathe!” One protester explained the demonstration to a local reporter, “We’re here to let them know this can’t be tolerated, there will be severe consequences if they continue to kill us. This will not go on another day.”

Some demonstrators grew unruly, vandalizing police vehicles with graffiti and targeting the precinct house where the four involved officers had been assigned. Authorities at the scene used tear gas and foam bullets on the crowd as a means of breaking up the protest.

Public Response

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemned the episode in no ambiguous terms on Twitter. “George Floyd deserved better and his family deserves justice. His life mattered,” the former Vice President wrote on Twitter. “I’m grateful for the swift action in Minneapolis to fire the officers involved — they must be held responsible for their egregious actions. The FBI should conduct a thorough investigation.”

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called the incident “sickening,” insisting, “we will get answers and seek justice.”

Meanwhile, Floyd’s family is calling his death “heart-stopping.” The 45-year-old restaurant employee originally hailed from Texas, but had lived and worked in St. Louis Park, Minnesota for several years leading up to his death.

“He was a good dude,” said Floyd’s cousin, Zackery Terrell. “Whenever you were around him, you felt nothing but just good energy.”