George Floyd’s death – and life – discussed at Montclair Public Library
Three years ago, George Floyd’s murder became a catalyst for renewed activism for change.
Two years ago, Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels decided to write a book that chronicles Floyd’s life.
One month ago, the world watched again as another Black man, Tyre Nichols, lost his life at the hands of police officers.
These events were discussed Saturday afternoon at the Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind program, as Olorunnipa, co-author of “His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” spoke with journalist Jon Fortt, co-anchor of CNBC’s “Closing Bell Overtime” show.
Though the auditorium was filled with Montclair residents of all backgrounds, the conversation between Fortt and Olorunnipa felt intimate as the two men discussed Olorunnipa’s process of interviewing those closest to Floyd and how they, as journalists, stay plugged into the news while also protecting their state of mind as Black men in America.
Fortt started the conversation by bringing up Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was beaten to death by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
Olorunnipa, who is White House bureau chief for the Washington Post, responded, “Police brutality can be such a heinous force targeted against people who look like George Floyd, targeted against people who look like Tyre Nichols, targeted against people who look like me and you, and that is something that as a country we have to grapple with.”
Millions of people watched the heart-wrenching footage of Floyd’s and Nichols’ deaths. Professionals like Fortt and Olorunnipa have to write about or discuss the topic of police brutality as part of their jobs; an audience member wondered how they keep themselves from becoming jaded by repeated broadcasts about deaths of Black people in America at the hands of police officers.
“I think there is a danger of being jaded, but I'll tell you I still haven't watched the video of George Floyd being killed because, as I tried to explain it to some non-Black co-workers, ‘To you it's an incident, it's a video, to me it's like a horror movie,’” Fortt said.
He added that he can see himself in that position and feel the emotions of these situations viscerally. “But if I'm going to continue to exist in this society, there's some things I have to read about and not watch,” he said.
Olorunnipa, who refuses to watch the video of Nichols' death, said that this constant showing of Black deaths can be overwhelming. “It can make you disillusioned about the prospect for change, especially as you see these things happen over and over again,” he said.
Both Fortt and Olorunnipa discussed not only the race dynamics that come with policing in America but the power dynamics shown as Nichols' life was taken by five Black officers.
“What does this mean about the power dynamics between citizens and police?” Fortt asked. “What does it mean about race and self-loathing?”
Olorunnipa answered: “It tells you about the perniciousness of systemic racism. It doesn't necessarily matter if the perpetrator of violence against someone who happens to be a minority is white or is black.
“By the time they put on the uniform they are taught to look at certain Americans in one way and other Americans in another way. And that teaching doesn't only happen in the police academy, it happens in the schools, it happens when we are segregated in our society.”
Olorunnipa’s book reads more like a novel as readers are introduced to the life of a man who became known as a result of his death. Olorunnipa and Samuels integrate dialogue and scene setting to help readers picture Floyd in other ways besides the 9-minute-29-second video that showed his death.
Starting from the title of the book, the authors intended to humanize Floyd in every step of the process. In an interview with Montclair Local, Olorunnipa was asked why they chose to name the book “His Name Is George Floyd” instead of “His Name Was George Floyd.”
“We wanted to first tell the story of a living, breathing human being, George Floyd, as he lived,” he said.
They wanted to take the emphasis off his death and highlight the father, son and friend that Floyd was, he said.
“We did not want to focus on the fact that he became a past tense in his death, and so we thought there was some power in writing about his life in the present tense and writing about him as the person that he was and the way that he lived his life,” Olorunnipa said.
The first chapter of the book is titled “Memorial Day,” the day Floyd’s life was taken by Derek Chauvin in 2020. Though most are familiar with the events of that day, the authors start the chapter with a scene of an excited Floyd ready to bask in the day by grilling with friends. Throughout the chapter, the reader gets a glimpse of Floyd doing such things as making silly Tik Tok videos or meeting up with friends.
Olorunnipa said that to include these small but impactful details about Floyd’s life, they spent many hours holding conversations with more than 400 people, including Floyd’s friends and family.
The book not only follows Floyd’s personal journey through life but also gives historical context to systemic racism.
“We told George Floyd's story in a way that we hope that people would see George Floyd in the lives of millions of other people like him, millions of other people who come from communities like his community, who are dealing today with the same kinds of traumas and inequities that he dealt with growing up,” Olorunnipa said.
“His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice” is available for purchase at Watchung Booksellers and available to be checked out at the Montclair Public Library.