Courteney Ross turned off her car engine and took a deep breath. She stepped out of her old minivan on this blustery night in late March, pulling out a box of 46 red glasses and 46 candles that she wanted to set down at the corner where her boyfriend, George Floyd, had begged a police officer to stop suffocating him.
It was the night after opening arguments in the murder trial against Derek Chauvin, the officer who had dug his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Ross’s therapist had instructed her to avoid watching the proceedings, to try to carry on as normally as possible. But what was normal in this city on edge? Every move she made felt like it threatened her inner peace — or even the justice system.
“I’ve never felt more isolated,” said Ross, 45. “Everyone’s got their own thing going because of Floyd, everyone’s on this journey, and I still don’t know what to do or what to feel.”
She began to tremble as she approached the now-infamous corner of 38th and Chicago, the location of the Cup Foods neighborhood market. The last time she had tried participating in activities there, Ross said, someone had suggested she take her opinions back to her own community. This movement wasn’t about her: a White woman who had grown up on the other side of town.
As the world tried to make sense of Floyd’s death, Ross was trying to make sense of her place in it. They had been together for three years, but she was neither bound to Floyd by law or by blood. To make it through, Ross had begun to treat Floyd’s death as a private pain that did not intersect with the struggle it represented. She worried that her mourning could seem shortsighted, selfish, even out of place.
She hoped the trial would provide a sense of relief. Her friends said she was a shadow of the woman that Floyd had known: bubbly, profane, frank, combative, a White woman whose diverse social circle defied the mores of a segregated city.
Shaken by feelings of sadness and guilt, Ross had sought refuge in her therapist and a local psychic, in antidepressants and in Trevor Noah stand-ups. Sometimes, she would open a plastic bin in her closet that contained some of Floyd’s old security-guard uniforms, just to smell them, feel his presence.
She was too unsettled to work, so she quit her job at a coffee shop, and her younger son, James, 12, stopped attending school. Twice a week, they visited a local horse farm as a form of therapy, as she worried her son had not come to grips with the fact that Floyd was not coming home.
“I’m stressed about Mom,” James said. One day, after overhearing Ross wail during a session with her therapist, he posted a note on his mother’s door.
“Don’t be worried about trial,” it read.
On this night, to her relief, a group of activists on the corner welcomed her. They had already begun to lay down their own candles, tracing the outline of a blue silhouette of Floyd’s body painted on the street. But their candles were small, unable to withstand the wind. Ross’s contribution could help guard the light.
Ross knelt and joined them, setting down the 46 candles, one for each year Floyd was on Earth.
“I feel like he’s here with me,” she said.
There was one element of the trial she was anticipating. Prosecutors had asked her to testify, and she relished the opportunity to tell jurors about the man she loved.
She had been a stressed-out dean at a local public high school, looking for a new life direction. He had moved from Houston, working security at the Salvation Army in an attempt to build a better life. That’s where they met in 2017. Floyd noticed she had been getting anxious waiting to visit her children’s ill father. He offered to pray with her.
He walked out with her, kissed her moments after they met. From then, she knew.
She wanted to tell of the man who would randomly fall asleep on her old yellow couch and bragged to friends about her older son’s mastery of chess, his silly dancing.
Ross, who as a child was bused to Black neighborhoods to help integrate the Minneapolis school system, had long understood how stereotypes operated in this city, which had glaring inequalities between Black and White residents. The path to the life Floyd wanted in the Midwest would not be as easy as he hoped.
“These men come to Minneapolis with big dreams; they think it’s a place where every culture will get along,” she said. “But then the real comes in.”
She sometimes railed about how unfair it was that people were so intimidated by Floyd, who was muscular and towered over six feet tall; about how quick people were to dismiss his intellect or work ethic. Floyd often wondered what the point was of complaining. “It is what it is,” she’d recall him saying with his raspy voice.
She wanted to humanize him for the jury, fearing that his physique and stature might play into problematic prejudices about Black men.
In practicing her testimony with the state prosecutors, Ross was warned not to speak in generalities, like calling him a “gentle giant,” because it might give the defense an opening to discuss Floyd’s arrest record and history with drugs, and their use of opioids together.
They had practiced cross-examination on those topics, she said, but she would break down and cry or get defensive.
Two days before she was set to testify, Ross had an old friend and hairdresser give her a stylish bob and a streak of red dye in her hair. Her niece, Josie Tucker, 26, had a nail-styling kit, so she decided to go over to her house to put on fake nails.
They decided on black nails instead of red, because black was more serious. Ross wanted the nails long, but not too long, because she didn’t want to “scare off the suburban White woman” on the jury who might get the wrong impression.
“So what’s going on?” Tucker asked. “I haven’t caught up with anything yet. I know they had all the jury selection and everything. But I just can’t watch.”
“Don’t. It’s not good for you,” Ross said. “My therapist said that we should stay away from it.”
Tucker remembered the last time she had seen Floyd. He had been scared to approach her new floppy mutt of a dog, Ronnie. Floyd told her dogs were not really seen as house pets where he grew up in Houston — they were largely stray animals or security guards. Over time, Floyd started to approach Ronnie gingerly, eventually crawling on the floor to touch her, his nose to her snout.
Days later, Ross had told Tucker that the two were having a lover’s quarrel. They were supposed to be sober, but Ross said she was increasingly worried about him hanging out with a friend who sold synthetic drugs.
Floyd had become jumpier and more erratic, she said, and she suspected that he was using again. She had wanted Floyd to stay with her at her house one day, but he insisted on hanging out with a friend who she felt was a bad influence. The last conversation Ross had with Floyd still haunts her.
“If you go hang out with him,” she recalled telling him. “I’m going to have to step back then.”
Floyd was furious. He hung up, and she blocked his number for the day. The next day, Ross got a call from one of Floyd’s nephews. The world had changed.
“Do you remember calling me?” Tucker asked as she painted Ross’s nails.
“I remember seeing you there at the parking lot,” Ross said. “And then I remember going to the park.”
Tucker told Ross there had been hours between the time she heard the news from Floyd’s nephew and an interview she gave to a local television station at a nearby park. In that time, Tucker had raced to the coffee shop where Ross was working. She had found Ross collapsed in the parking lot. Tucker had held her tight. Then she took Ross to her mother’s house, where she sat for hours, catatonic.
“Wow,” Ross said as her nails began to dry, absorbing the details she had blotted out. “Just wow.”
About two weeks after Floyd’s death, Tucker had held Ross’s hand as they walked through the doors of his memorial service in Minneapolis. Ross had hoped to sit in the front of the church, she said, but was asked to move to the back.
Most of Floyd’s family had no idea who Ross was before they saw her on television. During their time together, Ross chatted with one of Floyd’s nephews and his youngest sister, who lived in North Carolina, but that was it. The disconnect created a lingering doubt among the rest of the family about whether this woman was a devoted partner to Floyd or just another girlfriend. Amid the worldwide attention the case drew, a number of women reached out to the family falsely claiming he was the father of their children.
Floyd’s friends in Minneapolis said they all knew and hung out with Ross, and they attest to the couple’s relationship. But as Floyd isolated himself in a haze of depression and addiction, the bridge between his two cities had not been forged.
After Floyd was killed, Ross did not reach out to the family — because, she says, she didn’t want to seem money-hungry. She also hoped that one day they would reach out to her. Floyd’s relatives, on the other hand, said they were waiting for her to approach them.
Inside the church, she watched dignitaries and celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish join the family at the front. “This is not really about his time in Minneapolis,” Ross said.
The memorial service had become a seminal moment of the social justice movement, and Ross wondered if she might have been treated differently if she were Black.
Ross and Tucker were seated next to a group of mourning women in the back of the church. A boom microphone for the broadcast started to obscure Ross’s view and she fell to the floor, crying.
Then a woman with blond highlights and a raspy voice held her shoulders and started to whisper, “Give her strength, Lord, we pray for healing, Lord.”
The woman introduced herself as Toshira Garraway. She told Ross she had been in a similar position in 2009 when her fiance, Justin Teigen, was found dead and disfigured in a recycling bin in nearby St. Paul. Police said Teigen died of asphyxia when he jumped into the bin to hide from them; Garraway had suspected a coverup.
The women next to her had also lost their sons or boyfriends in police encounters in the Minneapolis area, and were waiting for justice. They vowed to take care of Ross.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I had not had Toshira praying for me,” Ross told Tucker as she stared at her newly painted nails.
“It’s so weird because it’s like there’s two different George Floyds,” Tucker replied. “There’s this thing that I don’t even know, a sign of this movement — and there’s just this guy.”
“How my therapist says it, she’s like, ‘There’s George Floyd and there’s Floyd,’ ” Ross said. “And if I don’t keep that straight in my head, I’ll go crazy. Because George Floyd is what people want him to be. Floyd is who he is.”
On the day Ross was set to testify, she hoped to reconcile the movement and the man.
She jumped out of bed and turned on Brother Ali, a local rapper. She set out a necklace and earrings bearing Floyd’s name on her coffee table, next to an unfinished cat puzzle. She had had a special mask made with images of Floyd’s face on it, as opposed to the most popular masks related to Floyd around town that had the words “I can’t breathe.” She wanted to remember his life, not his death.
Her psychic suggested she take something of Floyd’s to the courthouse, and she searched a bookshelf-turned-shrine for mementos. Between a bag of the Fritos he loved and a book he had been reading, she found a silver coin he had received from Alcoholics Anonymous that she took as a symbol of his fortitude.
Her sister, Brook, picked her up to accompany her to the courthouse, where she would see former police officer Derek Chauvin in person for the first time.
“I don’t know if I can handle looking at that man,” Ross said. “I’m going to be sick.”
Inside the courthouse, they went over the plan, the two women later recalled. The state prosecutors wanted Ross to introduce Floyd’s use of drugs in a sympathetic way, heading off efforts by the defense to try to suggest his drug habit contributed to his death.
She was told she had to take off her Floyd mask to avoid unduly influencing the jury. As she waited, Ross reread Bible verses on a green index card and held Floyd’s old silver coin.
The judge swore her in, and prosecutor Matthew Frank began to ask her questions.
She told him how much of a mama’s boy Floyd was, how heartbroken he had been when his mother died in 2018. She told about his love of food and his love of basketball, his athleticism.
And then the prosecutor shifted gears.
“I have to ask you if, you know, drug use was a part of the relationship."
Ross’s voice flattened. She began to tremble and fidget with the “Floyd” necklace she was wearing.
“Our story, it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” Ross said. “We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck, and his was in his back. We both had prescriptions. But after prescriptions that were filled and we — we got addicted. And tried really hard to break that addiction, many times.”
She would spend half an hour on the stand.
“I felt like I had people’s hearts in my hands,” Ross said after she came out, “and I could see some of the jurors tearing up. I could see them feeling my pain, and that’s what I wanted.”
She said she tried her hardest to frustrate the defense attorney when he cross-examined her. After expressing his sympathy for her opioid addiction, Eric Nelson began to dig into an interview Ross had done with the FBI weeks after Floyd’s death, in which she described an overdose Floyd had two months before he died.
Prosecutors had prepared her to simply answer the questions truthfully, confident they could prove that drug use had no connection to Floyd’s death. She tried to be calm, she said, but there was one question that burned her up.
It exploited one small detail that the federal agents had figured out in the interview, one she had tried not to say publicly because she didn’t want to insult Floyd’s relatives or obscure whom Floyd had been crying out to in his last seconds of life.
Nelson asked how Ross was listed on Floyd’s phone. Ross told him the truth: “Moma.”
As soon as Ross walked out of the courtroom, her phone and her Facebook messages started to buzz. Her former students wrote in amazement that they had seen her on television.
A stranger wrote: “Not only are Black lives not expendable, neither are addicts. I live two hours south of Minneapolis …. let me know if you ever need anything.”
Her therapist wrote: “I don’t quite know how you kept your wits, but you were sharp and true and honest and elegant and loving and hurt and pained, all at once. ”
Her older son, Gavin, 20: “Thank you for telling the truth.”
She finally felt like she had done her part.
“I feel lighter than I’ve felt in months,” Ross said.
At the end of the trial’s second week, Ross was asked to do even more. Garraway, the woman who had embraced her so tightly at Floyd’s service, invited Ross to attend a memorial service she holds annually to honor her dead fiance.
Ross was reluctant to speak publicly: She tended to be blunt and was fearful she’d say something to cause a mistrial. She didn’t want to seem as if she was interfering with the emergence of Floyd’s family as social justice activists, which she felt was their rightful place. She also felt self-conscious about taking up space as a White woman in the movement for Black lives.
But 11 years after the death of her fiance, Garraway found it harder to draw attention to his case. Ross figured her attendance might garner more buzz, raising awareness of how pervasive the issue of police violence was in Minnesota.
So Ross drove to St. Paul and saw hundreds of people gathering in the strip mall near where Teigen had been found. She panicked and opened her car door to throw up. It had been a long time since she had been around a crowd this size.
Garraway called for loved ones of those who had died in interactions with police to join her in a circle. She invited them to say a few words to the crowd, but not too much.
As soon as the relatives began to gather, it was clear why she had asked to keep the speeches short. There were so many families. There was the mother of Demetrius Hill, who said her son died in a botched police raid in 1997. There was the best friend of Travis Jordan, who was killed in 2018 when police came to his house after his girlfriend reported he was suicidal — police said he threatened them with a knife. There was Jamar Clark’s family, and Hardel Sherrell’s family, and more.
“We’re going to have the girlfriend of George Floyd, Courteney Ross, who is here speak,” Garraway told the crowd. “She doesn’t really come out too much …”
Cellphones went up. A man FaceTimed a friend and started whispering, “She’s here, she’s here.”
Ross grabbed the microphone, but struggled to say anything.
“We got your back, Courteney,” someone yelled, and the crowd began to cheer her on.
“Floyd was my man,” she said. “But George Floyd is a movement. And his name speaks for everyone who has been affected by police violence!”
Afterward, as she walked to the car, she was approached by yet another family who’d lost a loved one: John Garcia and Amity Dimock, whose autistic son Kobe Dimock-Heisler was killed in 2019 by officers who said he lunged at them with a knife when they came for a wellness check.
Dimock told Ross that those who had lost loved ones this way needed to stick together. It helped them cope. It also allowed them to be more cohesive, so they could comfort the inevitable next victim.
The couple offered to host Ross and her sons at their lake house, where they could “laugh a lot, cry a lot and eat a lot.”
“We’re gonna be friends! I can feel it, girl,” Ross said.
As they talked, Garcia checked his phone.
“They’ve killed another one,” he said. “In Brooklyn Center — that’s where we used to live.”
“It’s too much,” Ross said.
She learned when she got home that the 20-year-old man who died was one of her former students.
Daunte Wright was “a silly boy," a goofy student who required extra attention because he “needed a lot of love,” she said.
“It’s too much,” Ross repeated.
Her private pain suddenly felt so much broader. Floyd and Wright were nearly three decades apart in age, but both had shared the experiences of so many Black men: attending under-resourced schools; getting stopped by police for frivolous things — in Wright’s case, expired tags in the middle of the pandemic.
And now, old students who had known Wright were leaving voice mails on her phone.
“He’s dead, Ms. Ross!” one cried. “ … Ms. Ross, I don’t know what to do.”
A few days later, Ross put a white blazer over a George Floyd T-shirt and left for the park outside the courthouse, where the Wright family was speaking. By the time she got there, Garraway was already hugging and praying with Katie Wright, Daunte’s mother, in the same way she had when Ross broke down at Floyd’s memorial service.
Garraway patted Ross on the back and brought her into the circle.
“This is Daunte’s mom,” Garraway said.
“I remember her,” Ross said, shaking. “Now that I see you, I remember you from school.”
Katie Wright, swaddled in a blanket, nodded and her face turned red as she teared up. Ross held the mother’s hands and leaned in.
“I’m so sorry,” Ross said. “Your boy was so beloved. He was such a goofy, lovable boy. Sometimes, I’d tell him, ‘Just play ball for 15 minutes to calm down.’ ”
The family laughed.
“It’s true,” an aunt overhearing the conversation said. “He loved to play ball.”
As the trial ticked on, Ross spent days at the coffee table in her basement apartment, staring at the unfinished puzzle. James slept. She looked outside. Some days, she felt that Floyd’s spirit was no longer with her.
“He is taking care of anybody else,” Ross said.
The prosecution rested its case, and she began to feel a stiffening on the right side of her face — she figured because of the stress.
She had originally thought she’d done a good job on the stand, but over time, she questioned being so frank with the FBI about Floyd’s drug use — she kept hearing criticism that she had played into the defense’s best argument. “What if I’m the White girl who ruined it?” she asked herself.
All she could do was wait. Her mother promised to text her if the jury reached a decision.
Closing arguments began and she tried her best to avoid them. She and James wanted to go back to the horse farm, but she decided not to after the owner warned them that they might see “White Lives Matter” signs on the way there.
She got some disposable mops and a can of Scrubbing Bubbles and picked up some of her niece’s jobs cleaning houses. She finished the cat puzzle. She played Legos.
On April 20, she wanted to get out of the house, so she and James visited a spiritual bookstore nearby. It sold sage and mood rocks and books about inner peace.
“We have an astrologer and tarot-card reader today,” the store manager told her. Ross figured she could indulge.
Ross sat down at a table under a small white canopy. The fortuneteller, who by went by Della D-Z, was dressed all in black, and dealt three cards.
“Past, present, future,” Della said.
The last card, the fortuneteller said, was called the fool. It “is an encouragement that you’re not wrong hoping about the future, and you’re not being naive. The grief will be over.”
“A lot of people ask, ‘When?’ ” the fortuneteller said. “It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time when this grief will be over. … But it looks like a lot of positive stuff is going to be happening for you in the future.”
Ross started to tear up.
“You know, we are all waiting for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, right?” Ross said. “George Floyd was my boyfriend. It’s just nerve-racking to, kind of, like, sit here, having to wait and never know when we have to wait until …”
The fortuneteller nodded.
“And it’s like, what am I waiting for? And then, like, what does that mean? What’s that next step?” Ross said to her.
Ross’s phone buzzed. It was her mother. The verdict was in.
“Mom, why do you look so nervous if you know he’s guilty?” James asked as she drove him home.
“It’s a lot to take in right now,” she said. She dropped him off, then headed down the highway to the courthouse downtown.
“It’s just a normal drive,” she told herself. “It’s just a normal drive.”
She picked up Garraway a few blocks from the courthouse.
“It’s gotta be ‘guilty,’ ” Garraway said. The jurors had deliberated less than two days. They must have found the evidence overwhelming.
The two women walked to the park outside the courthouse, and immediately cameras surrounded them. Reporters from across the world asked Ross how she was feeling. The afternoon sun glinted off buildings as a man on a bullhorn shouted, “Black lives, they matter here!”
The crowd surrounding Ross grew from two to three people deep, then five, then too many to count — people pressing against one another to capture a photo.
“Please, I need to breathe,” Ross said, stepping away from the cameras. She started to cough and heave. She needed water.
The crowd was chanting about protest plans in case of an unfavorable verdict: “If we don’t get it? Shut down!”
A blow horn was handed to Garraway, who began to speak about racist policing in Minneapolis. Then someone shouted that the judge was about to read a verdict.
The boisterous crowd quieted. Strangers wrapped their hands around Ross. She bowed her head and closed her eyes.
“Guilty!” someone in the crowd shouted, and as cheers reverberated through the park, Ross broke down in tears and started to shake, awaiting the last two charges.
The crowds cheered, “All three counts! All three counts!”
Garraway hugged Ross tight.
“Courteney, this is what we’ve been praying for,” she said.
“He told me,” Ross said of her boyfriend on the other side. “Floyd told me it would be okay.”
“Toshira, I don’t know what to say,” Ross whispered.
“Tell them that it’s not over, the fight’s not over in Minneapolis,” Garraway said.
Ross took the microphone. She talked about the need to reopen cases like Teigen’s in Minnesota, about the other girlfriends and wives and mothers who have yet to see justice for their loved ones.
Not too far away, the Floyd family was speaking about cases that had become national hashtags. Ross found her voice speaking for Minnesota, a state in which more than 200 people have died in confrontations with police since 2000, according to a database compiled by the Minneapolis StarTribune. Until that day, only one officer involved in such an incident had been convicted.
“Floyd loved to pray,” said Ross, before leading the group in prayer. She dropped her voice to sound more like him: “Father God, Father God, please, Father God. Heal us today.”
The sky was getting dark as a DMX song started to play in the background. Ross got back into her minivan.
“I’m stunned,” she said as she drove past downtown. “Just stunned. It’s great. I’m happy. I’m glad for a guilty verdict. I’m glad justice was served.”
She got back onto an empty highway.
“When you hear ‘guilty,’ it’s for everybody,” Ross said. “It’s for everybody that they did wrong. But I know the reality of things. Cases, as much as I would love for them to just get reopened and reexamined, and people go to jail, it’s not going to happen. It takes so long to make huge systematic changes.”
The phone buzzed again. It was her sister.
“Joe Biden’s talking about Floyd!” she yelled. The president told reporters how this case was a step toward tackling systemic racism, but the voice in the distance was so grainy that she could not make out what he was saying.
The phone buzzed again. She ignored the message. It buzzed again and Ross threw the phone on the floor.
Her sister was waiting for her when she got home.
“Brookie,” Ross said, “I still miss him.”