WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was 8:01 pm on Memorial Day 2020, when a 911 call from a Minneapolis convenience store said a customer was refusing to give back a pack of cigarettes he had bought with a counterfeit $20 bill.
What happened next has become infamous: Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of the handcuffed African American man, who pleaded that he could not breathe and called out for his mother. Nine minutes and 29 seconds later, George Floyd was dead — the entire murder captured on a teenager’s cell phone.
Nearby, Russell A. Pointer had just finished up his day as the Senior Minister of the Minneapolis Central Church of Christ.
In Roanoke, Virginia, Erma Williams had prepared dinner after spending the working day the as a secretary at a medical practice.
At the Historically Black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Matthew Seawright was studying religion in preparation for following his father into the ranks of the clergy.
None had heard of George Floyd or had any idea of what was happening on an intersection in Minneapolis.
But now, a year after the images ignited a fire that spread from Minneapolis, Floyd’s name and presence are inescapable in their lives. They watched as America erupted in protest in the middle of a pandemic and a presidential campaign. There were calls for police reform, rioting, and the plea daily that “Black Lives Matter.”
This week, Floyd’s family were at the White House where they met with President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President Kamala D. Harris. As they left Floyd’s brothers and his 7-year-old daughter, Giana, stopped and talked to reporters in the White House drive.
“We just want the George Floyd Policing Act to be passed,” Philonise Floyd said. “If you can make federal laws to protect a bird, which is the bald eagle, you can make federal laws to protect people of color.” Giana called “Say his name,” and the brothers responded: “George Floyd!”
The policing legislation is stuck in Congress: after passing the Democratically-held House in March, it is now in the Senate, with Democrats and Republicans still locked in talks on how to pass it. It needs at least 10 Republican votes to beat the filibuster.
Now, a year on three ordinary Americans, two Black and one white, tell Zenger News how Floyd’s death has impacted them.
Seawright, 34, is now an African Methodist Episcopal supply pastor, having graduated Stillman College on May 1, watched by his father Bishop Harry Seawright, who leads the church’s Ninth Episcopal District, covering the state of Alabama.
Seawright said the last year had brought the students of his HBCU and the neighboring University of Alabama into contact with each other, creating an inter-racial dialog which he said he hoped was more productive than protests alone.
“We were right down the street from (University of) Alabama and it is very diverse,” he said. “You build relationships in restaurants because I am not afraid to embrace people of different races.
“I am not a big fan of protest. I am all for taking a stand but I just think that it is a matter of strategy.”
“They always say that people died for us to have a right to vote but when was the last time that you talked to someone who died,” Seawright said. “I believe that many of things that were in my way were in myself. I can’t support the concept that voting is the only avenue to fix the problem.”
His father, Bishop Seawright, led a march in Hunstville, AL, to mark the anniversary of Floyd’s murder, while his mother, the Reverend Sherita Seawright, said: “I think that for the children of this generation who thought that they were in the clear (in terms of race relations) this has been a good experience for them.”
But Williams, 56, who is white, had a different experience of the year — and a different view of protest.
She grew up in Maryland, attended a diverse church, and believed that the race riots of the 1960s were safely in the past. Her brother-in-law, who lives in Baltimore, is Asian American, and, she said, she had no experience of meeting someone openly racist.
But as she watched the aftermath of the George Floyd incident, she was troubled at the images coming from her television.
“I have mixed emotions because where I grew up, my school, my church family, everything… I never experienced a racist person in my circle,” Williams said. “We were all together, maybe I was naive, I didn’t think that people beyond the Beltway don’t look at the color.”
“When the Floyd thing happened on the heels of what happened in Florida, in Baltimore, I guess I got discouraged,” said Williams, in reference to the death of black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, and the death in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2017 of Freddie Gray, which was followed by protests and rioting in the city.
“I said Oh my gosh why are we going backwards?” said Williams who is white. “Then being told by people in the media that I am racist and prejudiced, I am kind of angry because I am being told something that I am not.”
Williams’ grandfather was a DC Police commander, her dad a locksmith and her brother-in-law is of Asian descent. “When you start damaging property, I am not listening anymore,” Williams said.
“With the Baltimore component of what happened, some of Jae’s [her brother-in-law] family stores had glass broken and I am thinking you just lost me. It turned me off. That is not a conversation.”
Instead, she said in the last year she has been intentional about building relationships on her job and in her community which cross racial lines.
In Minneapolis, Pointer has seen a year start in trauma but, he said, seem to point towards hope.
“When it happened, I was traumatized,” said Pointer, 53. As the city was hit by violence, religious groups tried to respond, including his. He is a minister in the Churches of Christ and runs a food pantry which works across racial lines.
“We have been praying every week on Zoom calls all year long, whites, blacks, Catholics, protestants, Lutheran, you name it,” Pointer, who is affiliated with a group called His Works United and Transform Minnesota.
“A year later, I have hope because I have seen this community come together like never before, not just black and white but all churches coming together, mosque, synagogues, everybody coming together to keep the guns off the street, police reform.
“This is the largest Civil Rights movement ever. This is a moment that turned into movement.”
Whether that optimism is reflected in Washington D.C. remains unclear.
On Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), said they were optimistic that Republicans and Democrats will pass a police reform bill in George Floyd’s name soon. President Biden had said he hoped it would pass before the anniversary of Floyd’s death, but it came and went without progress.
“While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal,” the three lawmakers said.
(Edited by Hugh Dougherty and Alex Willemyns)
CORRECTION: May 28, 2021 04:00 p.m.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Erma Williams’ brother-in-law. It is Jae, not Jay. Zenger regrets this error.
CORRECTION: May 28, 2021 03:26 p.m.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Derek Chauvin’s name. It is Derek, not Derrick. Zenger regrets this error.
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