Racism’s hidden toll

In Minneapolis, the physical and mental strain of a lifetime confronting racism surfaced in George Floyd’s final years

A memorial to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where he was killed in police custody.
A memorial to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where he was killed in police custody. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd came to this city with a broken body and wilted dreams, his many attempts at a better life out of his grasp. He was left with no college degree, no sports contract, no rap career, not even a steady job. At 43, what he had was an arrest record and a drug problem, his hopes hinging on one last shot at healing.

So in February of 2017 he decided to board a bus in Houston and ride more than 1,100 miles on Interstate 35 almost straight north to Minneapolis. Waiting for him was his friend Aubrey Rhodes, who had taken the same journey a year earlier. Rhodes was now sober and working as a security guard at the Salvation Army.

“Damn, bro, it’s cold,” Rhodes recalled Floyd saying on what was, for Minnesota, a balmy 50-degree winter day.

“You ready for this?” Rhodes asked him. “You can get yourself together here. You can find a way to live.”

Finding a way to live has never been a sure thing for Black men in America, who are taught from an early age that any misstep could lead to a prison cell or a coffin. They have higher rates of hypertension, obesity and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely as White men to die of a cocaine overdose, twice as likely to be killed by police and, in Floyd’s age group, 10 times as likely to die of a homicide.

Public-health researchers and scientists once held that these disparities were the result of poor choices — bad diets, lack of exercise, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But experts are increasingly pointing to another culprit: systemic racism. Being Black in America, they have found, is its own preexisting condition.

“Racism is painful and hurtful,” said Ayana Jordan, a professor at Yale who studies race and addiction. “It is a trauma that is introduced into our lives.”

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This body of research became popularized around 30 years ago when Arline Geronimus, a behavioral researcher at the University of Michigan, hypothesized that young Black mothers were in worse shape than young White mothers because their bodies were responding to a distinct type of stress. Other epidemiologists, such as Sherman James, had been finding similar patterns with different groups of African Americans, from farmers in North Carolina to teenagers in California. Even when controlling for income level, age, geography and educational status, experts found Black people were often sicker than their White counterparts.

Darrell Hudson, a public health professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in race and health, said studies since have shown that African Americans tended to have elevated levels of hormones such as cortisol, which typically rise as a response to stress. While those rises can be helpful in limited spurts — providing focus to pull an all-nighter, or increasing heart rates to accomplish a strenuous physical challenge — they also strain the immune system. That’s why students get sick after finals week or athletes can get so sore after big games.

If those cortisol levels remain high over a prolonged period, as has been found in African Americans, the strain makes people more susceptible to sickness. Hudson and other researchers concluded that those elevated levels were not about genetics, but racism. The stress of everything, from everyday slights to fears of a deadly interaction with the police, alters human physiology.

“There’s nothing different about how people respond to stress across race,” Hudson said. “The context that people live in is racialized, however. It’s about the chronicity of it and your relationship with it: Do you feel you have some control over what stresses you, without a herculean effort and a lot of luck? If not, everything piles up.”

A candlelight vigil at the Say Their Names Cemetery installation in Minneapolis in June this year.
A candlelight vigil at the Say Their Names Cemetery installation in Minneapolis in June this year. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Racism also takes a toll on the psyche. Self-esteem falls and anxiety rises when people are trying to make it in a country where they are taught as children that they may never be given a fair shake. Scientists refer to this coping strategy as “John Henryism,” so named after the hammer-wielding African American folk hero who died of a heart attack trying to prove his worth while building a railroad.

“You saw it in Floyd’s attempts to move from the protective, supportive, familiar environments he was raised in pursuit of upward mobility,” Hudson said. “The challenge of moving away to pursue opportunities can’t be overstated, in my opinion.”

Close friends and family said they witnessed those anxieties in Floyd, whose size, stature and arrest record played into some of the most pernicious stereotypes about Black men. From an early age, he knew his most fundamental challenge was to stay alive. “It’s the rules of the neighborhood and the rules of the house: Try not to get killed,” said Rodney Floyd, a younger brother of George Floyd.

Growing older, trying to chart a new path but ultimately succumbing to the pressures of his Third Ward neighborhood, they said Floyd developed a bad back and bad knees, high blood pressure and, according to autopsy reports, a weakened heart. And as he watched his friends die, the warnings he received as a young boy began to feel more like a prophecy.

He went to Minneapolis to start a new life. But there he found that there were some things about being a Black man that he could not escape.

George Floyd with his friends Aubrey Rhodes, left, and Christopher Harris, right, after he arrived in Minneapolis in 2017.
George Floyd with his friends Aubrey Rhodes, left, and Christopher Harris, right, after he arrived in Minneapolis in 2017. (Aubrey Rhodes)
Aubrey Rhodes and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Rhodes helped persuade Floyd to seek a new start there.
Aubrey Rhodes and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Rhodes helped persuade Floyd to seek a new start there. (Aubrey Rhodes)
Floyd, right, with friends in downtown Minneapolis.
Floyd, right, with friends in downtown Minneapolis. (Aubrey Rhodes)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: George Floyd with his friends Aubrey Rhodes, left, and Christopher Harris, right, after he arrived in Minneapolis in 2017. (Aubrey Rhodes) Aubrey Rhodes and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Rhodes helped persuade Floyd to seek a new start there. (Aubrey Rhodes) Floyd, right, with friends in downtown Minneapolis. (Aubrey Rhodes)

‘Try not to get killed’

Floyd’s mother, Larcenia, had instructions for a healthy life: Get your education to create a stable future. Don’t succumb to peer pressure when it comes to guns and drugs. Avoid the police.

“Try not to do nothing to make them look at you or give them a reason to turn around,” Rodney Floyd remembers their mother telling them.

George Floyd’s stature often gave people a reason to turn around. He was 6 foot 6, and he began to dream of playing pro basketball as his ticket out of the projects. So he leaned into the frame that made him physically different, pumping iron and developing a muscular physique. His friends marveled at his 300-pound bench presses and 100-pound biceps curls.

Because he could be so imposing, his mother emphasized that he needed to learn the King’s English, the importance of “please,” “yes, Mr. Officer” and “no, sir” — lessons that were more about preserving his existence than manners.

“You know how some people have a Napoleon complex? Floyd had the opposite,” said Adarryl Hunter, a close friend whom Floyd often relied on for advice. “He was extra friendly so people would not be intimidated by him.”

In Cuney Homes, the Houston housing project where Floyd grew up, everyone gravitated toward him. One day, over dinner, Hunter recalled asking him, “Let me in on the secret, how do you get everyone to like you?”

Floyd told him he always tried to greet someone with a compliment, something that recognized a person for what they were trying to be.

At times, though, Hunter worried that Floyd’s desire to be loved clouded his judgment.

It was in the small things: Sometimes Floyd would make himself sick eating at a friend’s house because he would not turn down their cooking.

And it was in the big things, too. He so wanted to be liked by everyone that he would find himself hanging out with friends who got caught up in drugs and the criminal justice system.

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Hunter was disappointed but not surprised when Floyd ended up in jail. So many of their friends did in a neighborhood where there were few men with 9-to-5 jobs to serve as role models, few jobs to start out on their own and plenty of opportunities to get involved in the drug game.

Hunter said that Floyd’s life was moving in a more stable direction after his last sentence in 2013. A newfound faith in Christianity gave him a spiritual foundation, and he tried to be a role model in the neighborhood. He completed a vocational program but had trouble finding an employer that would hire a man with a record. Each rejection brought him closer to a realization that he might not have the success he long envisioned.

He’d spend his days ingesting basketball and football statistics in the sports section, dazzling friends with his ability to analyze the games and mimicking sports analysts on ESPN.

Following sports was Floyd’s passion, but Hunter figured it might weigh on his friend to watch people succeed in a place where he did not. One day, while they were driving home, Hunter tried to get him to open up about it. Were you disappointed you didn’t go pro?

Floyd squinted, as friends say he often did when he was trying to formulate a serious thought. “I’mma let you answer that question,” he said.

Instead of making it to the pros, Floyd ended up spending a lot of his time outside Scott Food Mart, known as the Blue Store. Many of the men on the corner had served jail time and had trouble finding jobs, but they rapped about how lucky they were to live past 21. Some used cocaine and PCP, both of which police say Floyd tested positive for after his arrest in 2008. When a regular stopped showing up, the men wondered if he was in jail, or if someone needed to find a can of spray paint or a black marker to scrawl another name on a mural memorializing another friend gone too soon.

Adarryl Hunter next to a portrait of Floyd near his Minneapolis apartment in September. He grew up with Floyd in Houston.
Adarryl Hunter next to a portrait of Floyd near his Minneapolis apartment in September. He grew up with Floyd in Houston. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Adarryl Hunter, center, with Floyd and an unidentified friend on the day Floyd was released from jail.
Adarryl Hunter, center, with Floyd and an unidentified friend on the day Floyd was released from jail. (Adarryl Hunter)
Floyd and Hunter. Hunter once asked him how he felt about his unrealized sports aspirations. “I’mma let you answer that question,” Floyd replied.
Floyd and Hunter. Hunter once asked him how he felt about his unrealized sports aspirations. “I’mma let you answer that question,” Floyd replied. (Adarryl Hunter)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Adarryl Hunter next to a portrait of Floyd near his Minneapolis apartment in September. He grew up with Floyd in Houston. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post) Adarryl Hunter, center, with Floyd and an unidentified friend on the day Floyd was released from jail. (Adarryl Hunter) Floyd and Hunter. Hunter once asked him how he felt about his unrealized sports aspirations. “I’mma let you answer that question,” Floyd replied. (Adarryl Hunter)

Every now and then someone would come by who looked a little healthier than the others — pudgier and with more vibrant skin — proselytizing about a place in Minneapolis that helped them find sobriety, solace and employment. One of those men was Aubrey Rhodes.

In December 2016, Floyd pulled Rhodes aside. Floyd didn’t want the other men to know, Rhodes said, but he admitted to him that “he was struggling.” Floyd wanted to be more than what he had become. Rhodes gave him the number of Pastor Johnnie Riles III, a preacher who believed he had been called to Third Ward to set men on a new path.

The depth of Floyd’s substance use in Houston is unknown. Dozens of his friends, family and family attorneys interviewed for this story were not willing to discuss specifics.

“We know he had struggles, because we all had struggles,” Hunter said. “What I saw in Floyd was what I saw with a lot of the Black guys around me: He had potential but was bogged down by whatever those systems are. So I knew the essence of the struggles. I didn’t know the technicalities, but I knew from whence it came.”

When Floyd came to Riles’s church, the pastor asked him about his criminal record, his employment history, whether he had been using. Riles said he concluded that Floyd “did not hit rock bottom” but needed a serious life redirection, the type that was hard for men like Floyd to find in Texas.

In 1995, Texas had stalled funding for its “therapeutic communities,” which were designed to help convicts get clean and reintegrate into society — programs that would disproportionately help Black men. Originally the state was supposed to set aside 14,000 prison beds for such services. A decade later, it had only set aside 5,000, according to news reports at the time.

By the time Floyd came to Riles for help, the closest treatment centers to Floyd’s neighborhood had been shuttered. Others were not inclined to take men with records, who had neither jobs nor insurance, in a state that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The best solution was to send men to other cities and states where it would be easier to obtain mental health services. Riles suggested that Floyd go to a nine-month program at the Salvation Army in Minneapolis to develop life skills.

Floyd was hesitant but found inspiration in sports. The Super Bowl, which was being played in Houston, would be played the following year in Minneapolis. Floyd resolved to take the same journey.

But when Floyd got to Minneapolis, he decided the Salvation Army program wouldn’t work out for him. He lasted about a week in it, Rhodes said. Instead, he chose a center that concentrated not just on health and well-being, but the health and well-being of Black men.

Turning Point's headquarters in Minneapolis. Floyd entered its program in early 2017.
Turning Point's headquarters in Minneapolis. Floyd entered its program in early 2017. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

A turning point

In late February or March of 2017, Floyd walked into Turning Point, a sprawling collection of renovated houses on Minneapolis’s historically Black north side that host a 90-day recovery program. Floyd sat in the back, but he was an active participant in support group discussions, said those who were in classes with him.

Floyd noticed another large guy, who often joined him in the back of the room. His name was Eric Cornley. They bonded over their similar biographies — both were former college athletes who had moved to Minneapolis for a new chance at life. They were both large Black men who learned to be gentle and friendly so they wouldn’t scare others. They both sat in the back to make sure they didn’t block anyone’s vision. Everyone called them Big Floyd and Big E.

“Those two were like brothers,” recalled Clyve Jackson, 57, a fellow client.

Eric Cornley, left, and Floyd at a basketball game. The two quickly became friends at Turning Point.
Eric Cornley, left, and Floyd at a basketball game. The two quickly became friends at Turning Point. (Courtesy of Loretta Baytops)

The men had decided to lean into the recovery philosophy at Turning Point, which stemmed from director Peter Hayden’s experiences as the only Black man in his Alcoholics Anonymous group in 1973 — the year Floyd was born. Hayden remembered shaking his head when a White man told the group he felt like drinking because he didn’t want to give his wife $50. Hayden’s friends drank because they didn’t have $50.

It wasn’t simply an addiction that was a problem for Hayden and his friends: It was access to jobs, it was resources, it was learning to cope in a prejudiced world.

Hayden theorized that Black people healed differently than White people because society treated them differently. So he found some foundation grants and started his program in 1976. In addition to partnering with clinics that provide chemical treatment, staffers taught Black history to instill a sense of self-worth and prepared soul food dinners on Sundays to foster community.

They mixed the traditional 12-step program with the principles of Kwanzaa, and a standard step such as “come to believe that a power greater than myself could return me to sanity” was turned into “come to believe that a power within myself could return me to a lifestyle that would not hurt me.” The edit was designed to avoid the word “sanity.”

“African Americans don’t like to talk about being crazy,” Hayden said, which he believed was a product of a long history of distrust and dismissal between Black patients and White doctors.

This distrust led to remarkable disparities in mental health and substance abuse treatment that went far beyond Hayden’s program. A recent analysis of federal data showed one in 10 African Americans said they had an unmet need for mental health treatment — twice as many as the general population. And those who did find help were more likely to end treatment early, citing factors such as cost, stigma and a sense that their provider didn’t understand them.

These feelings are particularly damaging when it comes to substance abuse and mental health, according to Jordan, the psychiatry professor at Yale University who studies race and addiction. Clients must trust that their providers take their concerns seriously and are treating them as individuals, not stereotypes.

But Jordan said there is a reason to believe health-care professionals aren’t conscientious enough, citing statistics that show Black people are underdiagnosed with mood disorders such as depression while being overdiagnosed with issues such as schizophrenia. The disorder is associated with more aggressive behavior, a dangerous prejudice that has been used to justify harsher treatment of Black people since chattel slavery.

“It’s like we can’t be depressed or we can’t be angry. We have to be out of touch with reality,” Jordan said. “There’s plenty to be fearful about with existing mental health treatment when someone providing care does not understand your culture. And what is the history of culturally informed care in this country? It’s abysmal.”

Students at Turning Point attend a history class taught by Woodrow Jefferson.
Students at Turning Point attend a history class taught by Woodrow Jefferson. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Woodrow Jefferson's lessons at Turning Point delved into how systemic racism led to demeaning and dehumanizing Black people.
Woodrow Jefferson's lessons at Turning Point delved into how systemic racism led to demeaning and dehumanizing Black people. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Turning Point participants Lionel Temple, left, Darrion Watley, Eber Atkins and Darrin Embry at a cookout in Minneapolis in September.
Turning Point participants Lionel Temple, left, Darrion Watley, Eber Atkins and Darrin Embry at a cookout in Minneapolis in September. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Students at Turning Point attend a history class taught by Woodrow Jefferson. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post) Woodrow Jefferson's lessons at Turning Point delved into how systemic racism led to demeaning and dehumanizing Black people. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post) Turning Point participants Lionel Temple, left, Darrion Watley, Eber Atkins and Darrin Embry at a cookout in Minneapolis in September. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

The persistence of those stereotypes influenced practically every institution that could have helped George Floyd as he came of age. When drug crises ripped through Black communities, they resulted in the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the 1970s and the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that stiffened sentences, as well as the 1994 crime bill, which funded at least $9 billion to build more prisons. But multiple studies have shown those laws neglected to fund the job training, drug treatment and education programs they promised.

For example, the 1994 law promised $2.7 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development over three years for such programs, but a federal review shows lawmakers never sent the agency the money.

By contrast, lawmakers have steadily increased funding for those same types of programs when the opioid epidemic hit White, suburban communities. At least $2.5 billion was spent between 2016 and 2019 on treatment, through the 21st Century Cures Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

“When opioid use started rising in White communities, the image of a drug user became the ‘accidental addict,’ ” said Samuel Roberts, a Columbia University professor who studies the history of harm-reduction programs. “But that was no different than how Black people got involved in drugs. They don’t go out there intending to complicate their lives, but I think that shows how we’ve been thinking about mental health in the Black community.”

The tilt toward criminalization had a direct impact on George Floyd’s health. The continued and aggressive police presence in neighborhoods such as his not only increased the risk of arrest — new research from professors at the University of Minnesota shows that Black people who have negative interactions with law enforcement have a heightened distrust of medical institutions. Even more, a 2017 long-term study conducted by professors at the University of Michigan found that Black boys who said they experienced discrimination were more likely to experience depression and anxiety as adults.

And it also meant there was little interest in finding ways to treat those issues. A 2013 review published through the American Psychological Association found that there had only been 19 empirical studies examining depression in Black men in the previous quarter century and stated “depression among African American men needs to be at the forefront of our research, practice, and outreach agendas.” But gaps still remain. Six years later, Science Advances magazine estimated that White scientists were twice as likely to receive research dollars as Black scientists, whose proposals were more likely to examine disparities and inequality.

Without more research to prove their treatment methods work, rehabilitation programs such as Turning Point found it harder to persuade foundations and local governments to provide funding needed to survive. The result is a medical system that is not fully equipped to help African Americans heal.

At Turning Point, Floyd would listen to counselors such as Woodrow Jefferson talk about how these systemic issues led to the demeaning and dehumanizing of Black bodies — using topics such as enslavement, breeding, the prison system and medical experimentation as examples.

“Have you noticed how people are always trying to profit off of us, own us?” Jefferson asked clients in a recent support group.

He told the men that history should not excuse their behavior but should be used as a reason for them to take even more responsibility for their situations, before another person does.

“You’re lovable, you’re powerful, you’re important,” Jefferson said.

It was during these sorts of lessons that Floyd began to open up.

He told the group what he was not willing to say plainly to Adarryl Hunter: how disappointed he was that he never became a professional athlete. He also shared how his relationship with his body was complicated, both a mark of pride and a reminder of his failures — an athlete who tried but didn’t measure up.

“He was a deep brother,” said Andre Cotton, 49, who was in recovery at the same time as Floyd. “Every time he talked, he wanted to talk about doing better and how God was going to see him through.”

He finished the program in the summer of 2017, and Floyd felt different, determined and sober.

Rhodes helped him get a job working security at the Salvation Army. It was there that Floyd met Courteney Ross. He walked up to her after noticing she was upset after having an argument while visiting her child’s father.

“Can I pray with you?” she recalled him saying.

“At first I felt special, but then I realized I wasn’t that special because he was always praying for people,” Ross said. But then he walked her out, she recalled, and his raspy voice “dropped another two octaves.”

“Can I have your number?” Ross, now 45, recalled him asking. “My little self was aflutter all the way home.”

Floyd and Courteney Ross. “We were going to be on this journey together,” Ross said of their struggles to achieve sobriety.
Floyd and Courteney Ross. “We were going to be on this journey together,” Ross said of their struggles to achieve sobriety. (Courteney Ross)
Floyd and Courteney Ross. She witnessed some of his encounters with Minneapolis police.
Floyd and Courteney Ross. She witnessed some of his encounters with Minneapolis police. (Courteney Ross)
Courteney Ross shows a music video featuring Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro. Floyd lost his job there when the club closed because of the pandemic.
Courteney Ross shows a music video featuring Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro. Floyd lost his job there when the club closed because of the pandemic. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Floyd and Courteney Ross. “We were going to be on this journey together,” Ross said of their struggles to achieve sobriety. (Courteney Ross) Floyd and Courteney Ross. She witnessed some of his encounters with Minneapolis police. (Courteney Ross) Courteney Ross shows a music video featuring Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro. Floyd lost his job there when the club closed because of the pandemic. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

‘My 6-6 baby’

They fell in love eating fruit-filled pancakes at a spot called Maria’s and rarely passed Five Guys without getting milkshakes — he chose the peanut butter and she’d prefer the strawberry.

“My 6-6 baby,” Ross said. “I would tell him, ‘you don’t seem tall to me.’ I don’t know why, except for when I had to kiss him and get on my tippy toes.”

Floyd wanted Ross to know upfront he was sober after struggling with drugs. Ross said she admired his dedication to staying clean. She, too, had struggled with prescription drugs and had also recently found sobriety.

“We were going to be on this journey together,” Ross said.

As a White child growing up in Minneapolis, Ross was bused to Black neighborhoods to help integrate schools. Her childhood and time as a high school administrator educated her about the gross racial disparities in her city.

But those differences became even clearer when they shared their experiences with drugs. Ross told him stories about being pulled over by police while high, with Percocet pills on her dashboard. She did not even get so much as a speeding ticket.

“I’ve done drugs. I’ve sold drugs,” Ross said. “I can get a job, people try to make me happy. The reason he has a record is that he’s a Black man and the reason I don’t is because I’m a White woman, and that’s as real as it gets.”

Meanwhile, she watched Floyd work multiple jobs and shifts, in part because his wages were garnished for child support. Because of his record of drug-related arrests, Ross said, the only jobs her boyfriend would be able to secure relied on his strength. Bodyguard. Manual labor. Security.

“The jobs that would want a big, Black man,” Ross said. “I saw how he was treated everywhere he goes. Everyone saw him as a threat, but that’s not who he was. He was so smart, so quick-witted. Sometimes I’d hear him talk and say, ‘I wish the world hadn’t gotten to you.’”

His longest-standing boss was Jovanni Thunstrom, who appreciated how Floyd would gently defuse fights working at Conga Latin Bistro. Thunstrom also owned several properties throughout the city, and Floyd persuaded his boss to rent one of them to him and Big E. They signed a lease for a townhouse with red shingles in the tony White suburb of St. Louis Park, near a day spa and a bistro now selling $35 sea bass.

As he settled in his new home overlooking the sparkling waters of Lake Bde Maka Ska, Floyd finally found a sense of tranquility.

Even the police seemed to be different here, he told friends. They smiled and waved, seemingly undisturbed at the sight of two large Black men. The friends set up a weight room in the basement. And even though Floyd and Big E had three bedrooms, they put their mattresses in the dining room so they could sleep near one another. “That was how they looked out for each other,” Ross recalled.

A few weeks after they moved in, Floyd told friends about walking in one night and smelling something foul. He looked on the mattress and found Big E face down, unconscious. Floyd called paramedics, who pronounced his friend dead. Drug overdose.

“That death messed him up,” Ross said.

The dance floor at Conga Latin Bistro, where Floyd worked security and earned his boss's respect for gently defusing fights.
The dance floor at Conga Latin Bistro, where Floyd worked security and earned his boss's respect for gently defusing fights. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

After Big E’s death, Ross said, Floyd did not contact her for weeks because he needed to clear his head. She began to realize the depths of his sadness.

She said Floyd was pushing himself hard because he was terrified of going back to jail. When he spoke about the experience, Ross said, he would become tense and start to tear up.

He did not like standing in elevators or sitting in the back of cars, which friends said was a consequence of his time being locked up in a tiny cell. He took pills for his high blood pressure, and he developed heart disease.

But Ross said she saw the extent of his trauma in the summer of 2019, hanging out in a parking lot outside the Salvation Army. Four Chevrolet Suburbans pulled up, Ross said. Police demanded Floyd put his hands against the wall.

“He got so scared,” Ross said. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He was screaming and crying and sweating.”

After police ran his name through the system, Ross said, Floyd was told he was free to go. No report was filed and no one explained why he was stopped, she said. Even with their similar pasts, Floyd was so often deemed a suspect.

“They did that to you for no reason,” she remembered yelling to Floyd on the way home. “This system is so sh--y.”

“Baby, baby, baby, you need to calm down,” she recalled Floyd saying as he squinted. “Be thankful. I’m so glad they didn’t take me to jail.”

‘I feel like I’m fist-pumping’

Even before that incident, his friends were noticing his ambitions starting to wane. They detected more than just a rut. They felt a diminishing of his will.

One year after moving to Minneapolis, Floyd began to tell his best friend Hunter that he felt his life was not changing as quickly as he had hoped.

“I feel like I’m just fist-pumping,” Floyd would say, referring to the high-energy, low-movement dance he saw at the club. So one day Hunter ventured over to Floyd’s townhouse, where he had two new roommates. Hunter insisted they sit down and write a list of long-term and short-term goals, so that Floyd felt he was moving forward.

The list included lines about reading the Bible, staying clean, working out. Then, more practical items: Get new tires for the car, fill out job applications. And, lastly, goals such as getting a commercial driver’s license and supporting his family.

All of these were harder than Floyd presumed. Floyd’s friends remember that his learner’s permit was held up because he needed to pay off tickets and fees in Texas. Floyd saved up enough money to do that, but then he had trouble passing the exam. And when he passed the exam, he had trouble completing the classes for the license because he was too tired from working at night. And if he couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay rent.

“Every time he took a step forward, something just nailed him,” Ross said. “It made me so f-----g mad at the system. He would try and calm down and say, ‘it is what it is.’ He wanted to be too cool to care.”

Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross. They met when he was working as a Salvation Army security guard.
Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross. They met when he was working as a Salvation Army security guard. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

In May of 2018, Floyd’s mother died after having a stroke. Then came more deaths. People he knew died of diabetes or cancer. Friends from back home had been killed. Money got even tighter as he tried to send more back home to support the nephews and nieces whom his mother used to take care of.

Floyd’s new roommates, Alvin Manago and his girlfriend, Theresa Scott, noticed he had become more isolated. Instead of sitting on his favorite couch and watching ESPN, Floyd was more likely to spend time in his room alone. He complained about old injuries acting up and began taking pills.

Sometimes, his roommates would hear him reciting Bible verses. Other times they would hear him cry.

Behind closed doors, Ross said, Floyd had started using again. One Percocet pill over the course of the day became two and two became three. And both found themselves stuck in a cycle of trying to battle opioid addiction. The exact starts and stops are blurry, Ross said, but it became harder and harder to stop each time.

“We were a team,” Ross said. “We met sober, we relapsed together. We got sober, we relapsed together. We were in this constant battle.”

Floyd told police he had taken eight Percocets when he was pulled over at a traffic stop in May 2019. His blood pressure was rising to dangerous levels — 216 over 160 — and the police and emergency workers asked him to allow them to take him to the hospital, court transcripts show.

“When the police take custody of you, you know, they make decisions best for you even when you can’t make good decisions,” one officer said. “We do this all the time, we know we can take care of you. This might be the time that you get to feeling better.”

After hesitation, Floyd agreed. During the encounter, an officer asked: Do you only take pills, or do you sell them, as well?

“No,” Floyd told them. “Well, the reason why I don’t get involved with that because Minneapolis has been good to me.”

After the encounter, Ross said Floyd continued to use Suboxone to treat the addiction. Into 2020, the two had been clean and sober again. Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic would change his life in multiple ways.

The virus was disproportionately infecting Black Americans, and Floyd had an asymptomatic case. The clubs where he worked shut down and Floyd found himself unemployed, as did one of every two Black Americans in Minnesota. Friends became worried — these were the conditions that would make a person vulnerable to another relapse.

“He was just idle,” Hunter recalled. “And being idle is not good — for anyone.”

Signs outside a Minneapolis home in August.
Signs outside a Minneapolis home in August. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Around that time, Jefferson, the counselor at Turning Point, said he ran into Floyd on the street.

“I need to come see you,” Jefferson recalled Floyd saying.

Floyd’s desire to return was not unusual. Jefferson said many clients go through the program two or three times.

“We are here for you whenever you’re ready,” Jefferson told him.

The nature of Floyd’s drug use wasn’t unusual, either. Three weeks before his death, the federal government published a report about the alarming rise of opioid misuse and death in Black communities. The concern was especially striking in Minnesota, which studies show is one of seven states, as well as the District, in which African Americans are more likely to die of an opioid-related overdose than Whites. While attention was focused on White communities, another crisis was taking root in Black ones.

The crisis had only become more severe since the pandemic — and the reasons were playing out in Floyd’s life. He had lost his security guard jobs after the city shut down, had limited prospects and had fallen behind in rent — last paying his old manager $300 in May, all in $20 bills. His youngest brother, Terrence Floyd, recalled him saying that he was not a man who liked to dwell on his past because “that means you’re not focused on the present.” But the present was not providing Floyd with many options.

Courteney Ross holds one of George Floyd's last lists of handwritten goals that he used to keep motivated.
Courteney Ross holds one of George Floyd's last lists of handwritten goals that he used to keep motivated. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Floyd tried making more goals, looking to God and himself for some help.

“Let this be the day I claim victory over this dark situation through the Holy Spirit,” he wrote on one of his last lists. “you can get + gather ya self in da morning + feed your spirit. Follow that with your work out.”

One day in May, Floyd stepped out of his room to head out of the red townhouse to hang out with some friends. Scott, one of his roommates, stopped him.

“You’re not leaving until we pray,” she said.

Manago watched the two of them stand at the top of the staircase. Floyd bowed his head and tears flowed down his face as they recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.

“That was the longest I had ever seen them pray,” Manago said. “It had to be at least an hour.”

Manago waved goodbye. He would not see his roommate again until he received a link to a video with a text message saying, “Is that Floyd?”

Alvin Manago, Floyd's roommate and friend, at his home in September.
Alvin Manago, Floyd's roommate and friend, at his home in September. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Courteney Ross in Floyd's former bedroom at his Minneapolis townhouse.
Courteney Ross in Floyd's former bedroom at his Minneapolis townhouse. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
A portrait of Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis.
A portrait of Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Alvin Manago, Floyd's roommate and friend, at his home in September. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post) Courteney Ross in Floyd's former bedroom at his Minneapolis townhouse. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post) A portrait of Floyd at Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Purpose

The Wednesday after Floyd was killed, the men who had gone through recovery at Turning Point gathered for their weekly support group. The people in the room knew they should talk about what happened. But they just did not want to. They were numb, back in the cycle of mourning another Black man gone too soon.

“I was just sick and tired of talking because all of the talking just doesn’t seem to be helping,” said DeKolby Harris, who moved from Chicago. “It just feels like we can’t live. Do you see how they’re shooting people out there? Covid-19 killing Blacks. Police killing Blacks. Blacks killing Blacks. How can you win?”

“There is no coping,” said Andre Cotton, 49, who went through the program with Floyd. “I try not to feel anything because ain’t none of them cops give a damn about my feelings. I’m trying not to keep myself hostage to what happened to my friend. Because the more you hold on to it, the more it consumes you.”

“But you know what?” said Divine Mohammad, a 57-year-old counselor at Turning Point. “God had a purpose for George Floyd. His life changed the world.”

The men knew that was true. Administrators at Turning Point felt the change because organizations were calling them to train their staffers. “Everyone wants to do the things we started doing 44 years ago,” Hayden said. Local county governments were declaring racism a “public health issue.” Researchers like Ayana Jordan felt it, too, when they saw federal agencies asking for proposals to create best practices for culturally competent health care for African Americans.

Ross felt it when she poured out some pills to get high again, and put them down because, she said, “this is the last thing that Floyd would have wanted me to do.”

But why was death what it would take to change the world?

Floyd didn’t leave a street corner in Houston intending to die on a street corner in Minneapolis.

Now those who loved him worried that people would dismiss his death as an overdose because toxicology reports showed he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, a point lawyers are using to defend the police officer whose knee pressed the life out of Floyd. The accusation felt like another instance of blaming another unarmed Black man’s death on his past.

“I’ve done everything that Floyd’s done, and maybe then some,” Ross said. “So tell me, should I die?”

George Floyd's casket is borne from a memorial service at Minneapolis North Central University on June 4, 2020.
George Floyd's casket is borne from a memorial service at Minneapolis North Central University on June 4, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

His friends also knew strangers would see Floyd as an aggressive Black man who had to be subdued, a man reduced to his race and his record. They worried that jurors and the public would not see the man who had built up his body not to cause trouble, but to stay out of it; the man they worried about because the pandemic and his poverty created a perfect environment for a drug user to relapse.

The man who was strong enough to retaliate against the cops but said “Yes, Mr. Officer” and “please” because that’s what his mother taught him to do.

“I know how my baby acts around cops,” Ross said. “He wouldn’t disrespect them. He would be too scared.”

It was the fear in Floyd’s eyes that his roommate, his best friend, his cohort at Turning Point, found so traumatizing.

Because, at the point, they didn’t just see Floyd pleading for his life. They saw their friend realize there was no escape, that the early warnings given to Black boys would become his destiny.

They knew that fear. It was the fear of practically every Black man they knew.

Holly Bailey in Minneapolis, Arelis R. Hernández in Houston, and Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by Steven Ginsberg and Simone Sebastian. Design and development by Junne Alcantara. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Additional development by Lucio Villa and Jake Crump. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Robert Miller. Copy editing by Vince Rinehart and Elizabeth McGehee. Video by Alice Li and Drea Cornejo. Video editing by Reem Akkad and Nicki DeMarco. Post Reports audio by Ted Muldoon and Linah Mohammad. Audio editing by Maggie Penman. Social promotion by Ric Sanchez and Travis Lyles. Audience engagement by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn. Operations by María Sánchez Díez. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously told stories about life in the District for The Post's social issues team.