Led by civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Philonise walked toward a nearby park, where a swarm of cameras waited at the spot used by the family for news conferences. This time, though, reporters were encircling a group of women praying and crying over Katie Wright, whose 20-year-old son Daunte Wright had been shot and killed by a police officer a few days earlier, in a suburb just 10 miles away.
Philonise (pronounced fa-LOAN-us), 39, stepped back. He knew he was expected to deliver comfort to a grieving mother and provide passionate quotes to the news media. But the case, this activist life, was still so new to him. He stood by a tree, trying to find the right words.
“Everyone expects me to know what to say,” he remarked. “But this isn’t my field. I’m still learning.”
As the world awaits the jury’s decision on Chauvin’s fate, Philonise is having a more personal coming-to-terms. Civil rights activism was not so much a calling, but a duty that helped make sense of a sudden, gruesome tragedy that had befallen his tightknit family. His journey has required him to reconcile the image of the brother he admired and the struggles of George Floyd that he had not fully comprehended. He has had to wrap his mind around this Midwestern city, where it snows in April and a police officer put up a half-smirk as his brother gasped his last breaths.
“I don’t want him to be another person on a T-shirt,” Philonise told The Washington Post.
Before the world watched his brother die, Philonise Floyd had employed the lessons his mother taught him to survive as a Black man in America. He was polite and spoke softly. He worked a steady job as a trucker, helping provide a stable life for his wife and children in Houston.
It was big brother “Perry” — what his family called George Floyd — who had been the de facto patriarch in their crowded household managed by a single mother. Perry was the one who told friends of his dreams to “touch the world,” whose testimonies at outdoor church services could draw swells of people to worship at a basketball court.
But Philonise now had a testimony to touch the world. It came before Congress, where he spoke in June about the cruelty of American policing and the need for serious reform. It came in the courtroom last week, when he told a jury about his brother’s love for his mother and laughed at his inability to cook.
It came in front of cameras, in front of strangers chanting his brother’s name and holding pictures of his brother’s face, crying out for the need for the country to come to terms with racial injustice. He believed that if his brother’s death could help end the suffocating sting of systemic racism, the loss of George Floyd — and his family’s public grieving — might not be in vain.
“I had confronted racism before, but I always just tried to take the high road,” Philonise said. “When that officer killed him, my brother never got the chance to take the high road. Racism killed him. So now it is my duty to speak out.”
Often by his side are his wife, Keeta, 45; youngest brother Rodney Floyd, 37; and nephew Brandon Williams, 30. All have been trying to deal with overlapping personal pain and public responsibility.
That duality was evident when the family appeared at a news conference before the trial’s opening statements, when the Rev. Al Sharpton asked those in attendance to kneel on the ground for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. The extended photo op was designed to show what it took to hold a man down for that long.
As camera crews jostled for the best shot, the Floyd family focused on something else entirely. They thought about being Perry, lying on the pavement.
“Can you imagine what his cheek felt like?” Rodney muttered to no one in particular.
Now, as the trial against Chauvin was coming to a close, Rodney and Philonise watched a mother shedding tears over another slain son. Philonise pulled out his cellphone to check the details of the Wright case. He stared at the family. He prayed for strength.
A voice called to him. It was his attorney.
“We’re about to start,” Crump said.
'He was over here drowning'
How could they make sense of this moment, this place?
“I used to think it was nice in Minnesota,” Philonise recalled. “But they’re killing Blacks.”
He had known about Philando Castile, the school cafeteria worker shot by a police officer in 2016. But here he kept learning about more.
There was Jamar Clark, whom police shot in 2015 during a scuffle. An officer said Clark reached for his gun; some witnesses contended that Clark had already been handcuffed. And there was Justin Teigen, who in 2009 was found dead in a recycling plant after a confrontation with an officer in nearby St. Paul. Police said Teigen died while hiding in the bin; his loved ones suspect that the story is a coverup.
“We try to think of coming here as a job,” Rodney said in an interview. “Put on a suit, and go try and get justice for your brother. But there’s a dark cloud over this place.”
The state held so much promise for George Floyd when he decided to move here from Houston in February 2017, following the path of other men in his neighborhood who had criminal records, as he did. They were able to get sober, find jobs and start fresh. George Floyd’s family was thrilled that he followed them.
“There’s no hope for a former felon in Texas,” Rodney said. “He got out here and was working instantly. He had his own place and found a job in three months. I said, ‘Boy, go ahead!’ ”
Over the past few years, Philonise said that he and George talked nearly every day about trucking, a job they both cherished because it gave them independence and a sense of wonder about the world.
But the facts that emerged after Chauvin’s arrest revealed troubles that Philonise did not know George had: an unshakable sadness after their mother died in 2018; an addiction to pain medication; and a drug overdose in March 2020, just two months before the deadly altercation with police.
“I guess it’s something he couldn’t tell us,” said Philonise, whom his family calls PJ. “When you’re the big brother, you’re supposed to be the strongest. It’s hard to show you needed help.”
Life was now walking a few short blocks from the hotel to the courthouse, past boarded-up buildings and concrete barriers and barbed wire placed to protect property in the event of violent protests. Downtown was desolate and gloomy. And the courtroom was even more isolating: Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic meant that only one family member was allowed in the courtroom at a time.
Relatives divided the responsibility into morning and afternoon shifts, but it was a task that no one wanted. Inside the courtroom, they repeatedly watched George die — from multiple angles, with and without sound, in cellphone videos and in animated renderings. They saw witnesses burst into tears while their bodies began to shake, wishing they could have done more. They learned that Chauvin had pressed his weight into Floyd for 43 seconds beyond that initial number.
Not 8:46, but 9:29.
Some family members decided to opt out of their shifts. Philonise, the new patriarch, took on the task.
The second week nearly broke him. He sat in the courtroom as the medical examiner gave frank, graphic descriptions of dissecting George’s body for an autopsy. He saw pictures of his brother’s insides; his exposed, enlarged heart.
“I could not stop crying,” Philonise recalled. “It was too much.”
Adarryl Hunter, a close friend of George who found a good job and a good church in Minneapolis, tried to get the family’s mind off the proceedings. After the second week of the trial, he rented an SUV and picked everyone up from their hotel to show them places he loved. The first stop was the Mall of America.
“This place is therapy for me,” he told them as they gathered in the food court. “You go to the mall and you feel the energy. It’s inspiration. You step into a place and you feel kind of important. And you window shop, you look at things, and say to yourself, ‘One day I’ll have a chance to have it.’ ”
They ate Cinnabons and hot dogs, looked for new Nike Air Force 1s, reminisced about games of laser tag and debated whether they should come back for an appointment at Relaxing Message. They sniffed expensive cologne at Nordstrom and Philonise bought shirts on sale at Macy’s.
They marveled at the diversity of shoppers. In Houston, Philonise said, so many of the malls cater to communities of one specific race.
“This mall is packed,” his wife observed.
“Everyone wants to spend their stimmies,” said Philonise, referring to the stimulus payments sent by the Biden administration to help Americans during the pandemic.
Their family had also received a fairly big check — the city settled a civil suit filed by the family for $27 million in March — but their sensibilities about wealth had not changed. The brothers wanted to buy some suits and belts, but the prices at the stores seemed high compared with the Steve Harvey collection Rodney loved at Suit Mart in Houston.
“You know the best way to get a business started? Buy one, get one free,” Philonise said, but even some retail therapy couldn’t keep his mind off the case. They soon passed a storefront selling masks emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe” and “8:46.”
“I’m not going to keep the money,” said Philonise, who is starting a charitable foundation with his wife. “I’m going to spend it to improve my community. I’m going to spend it on mental health. All of this [post-traumatic stress disorder] going around.”
“You just don’t know who has PTSD,” Keeta said. “When George lost his mother, he lost everything. And we were talking to him every day, right PJ? He was over here drowning, and we didn’t know.”
The last time Philonise saw his brother in person was in June 2018 at their mother’s funeral. After the service, he said, George had refused to leave the casket. He kept kissing it, uttering “Mama, Mama.”
Philonise wishes he could have done more to help his brother, or at least picked up on the signs. He just left him alone in the city.
“I was grieving, too,” Philonise said. “I didn’t help him.”
'Something had to change'
He figured his activism would be his chance to make it up to Perry.
The next stop was in the city. Hunter, George’s close friend, had recently started working with a group of local “violence interrupters” that had formed after George’s death to reduce police intervention in Minneapolis.
“I feel like it would mean something to them if you showed some support,” Hunter told George’s relatives, so they drove to a strip mall with a taco place, a Little Caesar’s Pizza and an Aldi. A group of mostly Black men in orange shirts was waiting for them in the parking lot.
The site leader, Muhammad Abdul-Ahad, greeted the family. He said the men were going to walk up and down the main corridor, so people would get used to their presence, allowing them to potentially intervene before local beefs escalated.
Philonise gazed at his surroundings. The apartment building next door seemed pretty tidy. The stores in the strip mall seemed to be nicely painted and busy.
“This is a tough neighborhood?” he asked.
Abdul-Ahad explained why everything looked so new: The site had been rebuilt after the unrest that followed George’s death.
“The street was burning,” Abdul-Ahad said. “You see that building that’s boarded up? That’s the police station where Chauvin came from.”
This was new. For all the time his family had spent in Minneapolis, Philonise and his family rarely had the chance to see and talk with locals.
“So where are people at now?” Philonise said.
“Everything depends on the verdict,” Abdul-Ahad said as the group began to walk, adding: “If we don’t get a conviction, people are ready.”
He did not need to elaborate.
Abdul-Ahad took a breath and put his hand on Philonise’s shoulder.
“Not to put you through this,” he said, and the Floyd family members knew what was coming next, because they had heard it so many times before.
“I was out there protesting that first night,” Abdul-Ahad said. “When that man was crying for his mother, I wept because I had to do something. Someone had to step up. Something had to change. A grown man calling out for his mother like that? That can’t be right.”
Abdul-Ahad explained how difficult it was to get investment in the community until George died. He told Philonise how the death sparked activism in the city, spurring the government to address long-standing problems.
“And how’s mental health around here?” Philonise asked.
“A lot of people right now are suffering from PTSD,” Abdul-Ahad said. “They don’t know how to deal with everything. They’ve been through so much.”
“The world will see,” Philonise said before repeating one of the phrases that he has learned to tell himself and others. “Justice for George is freedom for all. But we’ve got to stick together and be there for one another.”
Rodney jumped in.
“There so much unity here,” he said. “I mean, unity. Look at you all working together. I used to think this place was pretty dark and gloomy, but you all are warming my heart.”
Philonise had one more question.
“Where’s Martin Luther King street?” he asked. “Because I know every Black neighborhood has a Martin Luther King street.”
Abdul-Ahad looked confused.
“We don’t have one of those.”
A brother's legacy
The next morning, Philonise headed to the suburbs to attend Hunter’s church. The Creative Church in Fridley met in a building that looked like a refurbished high school gym. Its congregation was diverse and young and sat in socially distanced seats in the dark as a Christian rock band played onstage.
Philonise walked to a chair at the far end, sitting alone. He stretched out his arms as the band sang, “Take me back to where we started, I open my arms to You.”
The Floyd family had opened its arms to the idea that the American legal system could deliver justice — despite so many cases that don’t. The Floyds had few other choices.
But Philonise worried that the jury would decide that the images of George dying would not be compelling enough to convict the man on trial. That this case, and George’s name, would not be the transformative moment for the country that the family so desired. It unnerved him. Then what would become of his brother’s legacy? Of the country’s racial reckoning? What would become of him?
The pastor began delivering his sermon on the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to John. It is the story of an invalid who began to walk after Jesus instilled him with a sense of power to overcome his sickness.
“When you depend on others more than you depend on God, you will never see the full manifestation of your purpose for your life,” the pastor said. “No one has the authority to stop God’s plan for your life. You have to believe that your life is in His hands. . . . God will get you there.”
It reaffirmed that feeling Philonise had. If justice could not come by the law, Philonise hoped peace could come through faith. And as the pastor spoke, Philonise’s eyes began to fill with tears.
“When I got to this church, I could hear my brother telling me, ‘Thank you, keep going,’ ” he said after the service. “I feel his presence. . . . He’s going to allow me to handle it.”
After church, Hunter took Philonise suit shopping at a discount store in a nearby suburb. He bought a Glen plaid suit to wear on the day of his testimony.
Philonise was ready, even excited, to address the members of the jury, to tell them all the good things about his brother. He woke up at 1 a.m. and, unable to go back to sleep, turned on the television.
That’s when he saw the news: A police officer had fatally shot Wright during a traffic stop. Police officials would later say that the officer, who was charged with second-degree manslaughter, accidentally pulled her gun instead of her Taser.
The shooting happened in the same suburb where Philonise had bought the suit.
A few days later, he stood before the Wright family and news cameras in the snowy park.
Another testimony. He carried with him a new perspective on the city, a resonant sermon, the continued pain of his lost brother.
“It’s a shame,” Philonise said, shaking his head a little to fight off tears. His voice rose to a bellow. “The world is traumatized, watching another African American man being slayed!”
He thought about the inspiration he found in the men patrolling the streets.
“Minneapolis! Y’all can’t sweep this under the rug anymore,” he said. “We’re here. And we will fight for justice for this family, just like we are fighting for our brother.”
He asked for humanity.
“In times like these, people need hugs,” Philonise said. “People need to be given love.”
He wrapped his arm around Chyna Whitaker, the mother of Wright’s 2-year-old son. He embraced Wright’s mother, Katie Wright. The reporters left and Philonise walked back into the courtroom.
He had to continue doing his part to get justice for his brother. Each morning, he closed his eyes and prayed that the jury would do the same.