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Philonise Floyd is wearing a custom pair of Nike Air Force Ones. The face of his brother is painted on the side.
This is the same pair he wore to the funeral, Philonise tells me. Almost exactly a year ago. They're bright white. "I keep them clean," he says, proudly. He's only worn them 10 or so times. He reserves them for big days.
In the moment, I find it a little odd that he would consider this, a brief interview outside an art gallery in downtown Houston last week, a "big day,” because Philonise has had so many big days recently. Mere weeks before, he’d watched as Derek Chauvin, the man who murdered his brother, was found guilty on three counts. And just the day before, he'd been at a rally in support of the family of Pamela Turner, a 44-year-old Black woman who was killed by police in 2019. Those are "big" days, with thousands, or millions, of eyes on him.
But in speaking with 39-year-old Philonise Floyd, it becomes very clear that any opportunity to talk about his brother is a big day.
"I could never mourn like others could, because there was always somebody wanting to do an interview," he says, recalling the weeks after his brother was murdered by police in Minneapolis. "I realized that my brother died probably like six months after he had already passed, because I've never really had that time to sit there. It was always interview, interview, interview. And I didn't want to stop doing the interviews, because I wanted accountability for George."
Very few people know George like those close to him. Since his murder, the world has, if it has cared to look, been given some details of a version of George Floyd. His prowess on the sports field. His toxicology report. Loving testimonials from his friends. His prison record. His music. But in the foreground of all that is a video clip, 8 minutes and 46 seconds in length, in which the clearest face that can be seen is that of a now-convicted murderer.
"I could never mourn like others could, because there was always somebody wanting to do an interview."
This video does not represent the big brother that Philonise knew. But Philonise knows that for most of the world, that video is George Floyd, and George Floyd is that video. He has vowed to not let that video be in vain.
"That's what it has taken for the world to see what's going on," he says. "And we don't want any more. It shouldn't be any more George Floyds. It shouldn't be any more Breonna Taylors. We need awareness right now of what's going on."
There is something jarring about hearing Philonise, the baby brother, say that there shouldn't be "any more George Floyds." I know he wants his brother back. But he’s not talking about his brother here. When he says “George Floyd,” he is talking about his brother not as a person but as an event, the way when people say “no more Columbines,” they mean the 1999 shooting, not the high school.
He’s speaking about his brother as an abstract concept.
But then again, he's only speaking in the language of the rest of the world. He's speaking how the people marching in the streets speak. How the racist detractors speak. How the journalists speak.
He's speaking like this because I don't know who George was. I can't. There's not enough time for that.
“People look at my brother as a cause, you know?” he says, matter-of-factly. “But in reality, he was a loving person to us.”
This isn't to say that Philonise doesn’t want people to know who George, the real George, really was. In fact, I get the impression that he'd like nothing more than for people to be able to see what he saw in George Floyd, if only they’d give him the time.
If you get Philonise going, he'll start joyfully rattling off stories about the big brother he knew. About growing up poor, and how neighborhood moms would try to cut their kids' hair to save money—and one boy in particular came out looking awful, so George picked up a pair of clippers and tried to fix the boy’s hair (it went pretty well, he recalls). Or how local hip-hop legend DJ Screw would drop by the house just to chat with him. Or how they'd sleep in the same bed, or how they'd eat banana mayonnaise sandwiches, or how they'd play video games all day.
As we’re talking, something about that bit—the video games—sticks out to me.
Like most people who have followed Floyd's case, I have built up an image of George Floyd in my head. As a journalist, I've even been able to talk to people who knew him well, and that's probably rounded out my mental picture better than most who haven't had that opportunity. But as I’m hearing Philonise speak, I realize that I'd never really imagined “Big Floyd” as a child.
So I ask Philonise what games he and his brother played together.
“Tecmo Bowl,” he says immediately, name-dropping possibly the most well-regarded football game for the original Nintendo system. “We used to love playing with either Bo Jackson or Walter Peyton.” Especially Bo Jackson.” He could shake everybody off of him,” he laughed.
This makes sense. George was midway through his high school football career when that one came out, so it stands to reason that he might enjoy a digital rendition of the sport. The brothers also played a lot of Double Dribble, a basketball video game. George was already putting in work on the court, and would go on to play college ball. That is to say, these things fall in neatly with the narrative about George's life that many of us have heard.
"There was another game we used to play," Philonise says, racking his brain for a moment. Then, suddenly, it comes to him. "Bubble Bobble. That's it, Bubble Bobble. You remember that?"
I do. It's a game where cute dinosaurs blow bubbles, trap monsters, and collect multicolored candy. Unlike the sports games, which are by nature competitive, this one is designed to be more fun when played by two people, as a team, as you work together to clear the screen of bad guys. It's precisely the sort of game you'd want a big brother around to help you with.
To spend time with Philonise, or really anyone who knew George closely and has been asked to speak publicly about him, is to watch said person, a year on, continue to struggle with balancing George Floyd, the human being with all of his quirks and flaws, jokes and habits, hobbies, and worries, with “George Floyd,” the Cause. To watch them struggle with what to tell you when you ask them about “George.”
Because these little details—the sandwiches, the haircuts, the games—are the details that Philonise holds dear. These are images that keep his older brother's memory alive in his head, that keep that cellphone video at bay.
But to the larger public, these details are not so important. Philonise knows this, even if he forgets sometimes. You could see it during his court testimony—Philonise was on the stand, recounting happy memories about his brother, and sandwiches, and video games. Then prosecutor Steve Schleicher interrupted him, in order to steer him back to topics that would be relevant for the jury. We only have so much time.
At one point during a lull in our conversation, a woman approaches him, wanting to take a picture. He happily obliges.
"I don't see what everybody else sees," he says after she leaves, with a few snaps safely saved away on her tablet. He quietly shrugs. "I just see Philonise. But everybody else always tells me, ‘Hey, you're an activist!’"
“Activist” is not a title he ever imagined taking on. Before this, Philonise was a truck driver, a job he was proud to have, and one he was encouraging his older brother to pick up. Now, activism is essentially his full-time job. He travels often, and his calendar is full of marches, interviews, and rallies. On May 24, he marked his marriage anniversary with his wife, with whom he recently co-created a social justice foundation. On May 25, the anniversary of his brother’s death, he is meeting with President Biden.
If things were different, Philonise might have more time to mourn. He might have time to tell us about the George he grew up with. But for now, there are too many “George Floyds”, too many marches, and too much work to be done.
"I feel that God has anointed me on a path that I didn't understand," he says. "This came to my front door. I never expected this."
Philonise is still learning how all of this works. He wants to help wherever he can, but he is also very open in talking about how often he asks for guidance from others—taking cues from his attorney and civil rights leader Ben Crump, or Jesse Jackson, or other people who have previously lost family members to police violence, a peer group he refers to as a "fraternity" that "nobody asked to be in."
"I always say, ‘Hey, um, do I need to build my vocabulary?’" he confides, smiling, acknowledging that he isn't as polished a speaker as some others that share the stage with him at rallies. "But people always come up to me and say, ‘You're fine just the way you are.’ [They] can see the realness."
Philonise’s current focus is a bill that bears his brother’s name. If passed into law, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would make changes to the way policing works in the United States. Although the legislation hasn’t been finalized yet, it’s expected to ban chokeholds and create federal standards for no-knock warrants, like the one that left Breonna Taylor dead in her own apartment.
“I feel that God has anointed me on a path that I didn't understand. This came to my front door. I never expected this.”
The proposed version also aims to end qualified immunity, the judicial doctrine that currently keeps police officers from being personally sued for civil rights violations—though some lawmakers are calling to drop or modify that portion. But regardless of how negotiations go on Capitol Hill, Philonise wants to be at as many events, in person, as possible.
“I just realized in this world that if I keep getting out, speaking, speaking, speaking, I can change people little by little,” he says. “That's big for me.”
He pauses, and looks over my shoulder. "Somebody's waving," he says.
I turn around and see a car parked by the side of the road. A middle-aged woman has rolled down her window and is waving Philonise over. She wants to talk to him. He motions for me to come with him, to hear what she has to say.
We walk over to her car. She immediately begins questioning Philonise about his responsibility in keeping the movement on track.
"Brothers are being killed," she begins, and "the money being raised ... isn't going back to Black men." She begins to assert her suspicions of various social justice groups. "Is any of this going back to help the brothers?"
"You know, that's their own organization, and I can't... I can't tell them what to do," he smiles, quietly. "To be honest with you, I have so much going on..."
"I know you have a lot going on," she says. "But you got to hire people to handle things."
"Yes, ma'am," he says, bowing his head politely. He shifts in his Nikes.
Her son has a YouTube channel, the woman in the car says, where he talks about corruption in the movement. She shows Philonise the video on her phone. He should watch the video later, she tells him, when he has time, so he can be informed about what's really going on in the movement.
Another young man walks up to join the conversation. "One thing I heard," he says, addressing them both, "is that people get paid a lot for speaking fees. So that's another way they make money." The woman nods.
It's suddenly turned into a discussion about what is wrong with social justice movements in general. Philonise and I slowly walk away and leave the two strangers to discuss things. There is some nervous laughter. This is not an uncommon occurrence for Philonise, but it is still clearly uncomfortable for him.
But then, this is perhaps the nature of a movement in the age of social media. We at home have become used to access. And in this process, many of us have taken for granted that we should be able to hear the cries of the bereaved, and perhaps even tell them what to do.
Philonise doesn’t seem upset at people who give him directions, any more than he is upset at people asking him for pictures, or upset at me for asking to interview him. “It’s a state of emergency,” he says, and things are urgent.
Philonise reminds me: Just as the trial for his own brother’s murderer was drawing to a close, another Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a police officer mere miles away from the courtroom where he was standing. There was little time to rejoice or hear stories. Philonise went to a rally in support of Wright’s family. He met Wright’s mother and cried. He feels terribly for her.
“This is bigger than George,” Philonise says.