EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern University alum Robert Samuels is back in his college classroom at Fisk Hall in Evanston for the first time since graduating in 2006, but now, in a sense, he’s the one doing the teaching.
“It’s so surreal,” Samuels said. “I didn’t really think about how much it would hit me until I walked through the doors.”
“I don’t think I knew I could cry happy tears, but I was so elated,” he said. “I was totally surprised.”
Samuels reflected on the ways in which his time at Northwestern, in Evanston, and in Chicago shaped his views.
“There are so many ways,” he said. “One of the reasons I wanted to come to Northwestern is because I grew up in the Bronx, and I had never spent any time in the Midwest. I thought that would be a good thing for me. And a lot of the conversations that I used to have with people on campus were about race and racism and how to connect with each other and how to be able to speak the truth and speak it in ways that are honest and speak it in ways that are impactful for folks who might be a little bit uncomfortable with those situations.”
Those were skills he used in more than 400 interviews conducted over a six-month period that became a landmark book entitled “His name is George Floyd: One man’s life and the struggle for racial justice,” which was co-authored with his one-time Washington Post colleague, Toluse Olorunnipa. Both were in Chicago for the 2023 Printers Row Lit Fest in September.
It’s been more than three years since the murder of George Floyd enflamed the nation and sparked the largest racial justice movement in a half century. Worldwide protests demanded an end to police brutality.
Samuels joined WGN’s Mike Lowe for a conversation about the book. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity:
LOWE: “The entire world knows about the final 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life. The entire world knows next to nothing about the 46 years that preceded that. Why did you think it was important to give such a detailed account of his life?”
SAMUELS: “We just wanted to do our part in helping the country better understand George Floyd and to better understand systemic racism. As much as people were saying George Floyd’s life mattered, we needed to show why it mattered — that he was a man of hopes and dreams, that he had goals, that he woke up every day trying to be a better person.”
LOWE: “He was this really big guy, 6’6”. But he was self-conscious about that to the point where he took steps to say hello to people, to look them in the eye, and make them feel at ease, because he knew just by the way he looked — because he was a big black man — he would be perceived as a threat.”
SAMUELS: “Yeah, it’s one of the most fascinating things. I had this inkling that there might have been an interesting relationship between George Floyd and his size. 6’6”, 225 pounds. He built that body because he wanted to be an athlete, because he wanted to become a football player. But he was naturally very thin, and he would go around when he’d go into a new setting and he’d go and meet people and say, ‘hi, my name is Floyd. My name’s Perry (Floyd’s middle name).’ Because he didn’t want people to perceive him as a threat. And when you talk to people, they would say sometimes it sort of seems he would shrink into himself, that he wanted to make himself smaller because he felt very imprisoned just by the nature of the body he had built.”
LOWE: “He was also a person — and this is documented in great detail throughout the book — who tried to spread love at basically every chance he could get. Whether it was telling his friends, “I love you.” Explicitly telling them that. Texting them that or sending flowers — for no reason. These are things that we don’t typically think about George Floyd.”
SAMUELS: “No. I mean, I think when people found out that he had a police record, we stopped asking ourselves the question whether or not he was a good person or why he might have had the record.”
Floyd did indeed have a police record – eight criminal convictions in eight years for drug possession, theft, and trespassing.
LOWE: “How did you approach that part of his life?”
SAMUELS: “Honestly. And as journalists, we believe that we seek the truth. We report it fully, and we talk to everybody who knows anything about the situation. So maybe he wasn’t a saint, and we went into this project thinking that maybe we’d have to write about that.”
In 2007, Floyd pleaded guilty in an aggravated robbery inside of a home and served four years in prison, but the picture is more complicated than what is recorded on the police report. Floyd maintained his innocence but knew a trial would likely result in far worse punishment, he accepted a plea bargain.
LOWE: “The book argues that this is another example of the systems — and how these very difficult choices are presented to black men who may believe they’re innocent, but have to choose between going to trial, or taking a plea and getting four or five years in prison.”
SAMUELS: “Right. And it calls into question how far we did go. Right. It would have been easy to have looked at a police report and taken it for its word. Right. But I think there are a bunch of different questions that through the course of the book, we had to try and answer one: Who was the lawyer? Did the lawyer know anything? Two: did we talk to the victim? What does the victim have to say about it? Three: what do his friends say? What were the people around him saying about how he responded to this incident? Four: what were the conditions of the community and what was the police presence like? You know, that might make a difference in terms of whether a person says they’re guilty when they’re not. And I think in doing that reporting, it was such a reminder for us that every situation is so much more complicated than what can be presented. So, looking at a single source document is not the way to really judge a person on the quality of their life or their intentions.”
LOWE: “And in that sense, this is not only a book about George Floyd’s life, but it’s also a book about all of the systems with which he interacted and the institutions that shaped him.”
SAMUELS: “We go through the education system. The housing system, the health care system, the system of criminal justice. To think about the ways in which George Floyd might have been helped, but ultimately or structured to get him toward criminality.”
LOWE: “And that brings us to the discussion of systemic racism, which is something that was talked about a lot in the immediate aftermath of his death. And then what happened?”
SAMUELS: “Well, we’re living it. Today as we concluded the writing of this book. We saw people talking about banning books, about systemic racism, things that would traffic in some of the ideas that Toluse and I believe that we needed to do. And we see it we see these political arguments continue about whether speaking about some of the hard things and speaking about some of the horrors in this country would mean that it would inflict too much guilt and shame upon people. I mean, it’s been a stunning turn.”
LOWE: “Have you been disappointed that that momentum seems to have been lost?”
SAMUELS: “Well, absolutely. You know, as truth tellers, you believe that the country is better when it knows the truth, and it’s better when it knows the truth in the proper context of it, in thinking about the fullness of it. The nuances. How different beliefs affect people. That’s why we have the first amendment, so we can be educated.”)
The book devotes a chapter to Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of second-degree murder in Floyd’s killing. It details how Chauvin used the infamous knee restraint at least nine other times, Including on a 14-year-old boy. Chauvin was also the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations during his more than 19 years as a member of the police force.
LOWE: “Why wasn’t he ever (seriously) disciplined?”
SAMUELS: “I think that’s a question for the Minneapolis police department to wrestle with. And I’m not sure they really understand.”
LOWE: “The book does and a really good job of pointing out how when a complaint is lodged against an officer for excessive force, the mechanism of investigation is so methodical that it’s almost like discipline never comes.”
SAMUELS: “As that continues to happen, police officers feel stronger and stronger and freer to carry out the law in the ways they choose to. And that’s what all the evidence shows happened with Derek Chauvin.”
Floyd was raised outside of Houston and played football and basketball in high school. He attended college at Texas A&M University – Kingsville, where he played basketball before dropping out. He fell into drug addiction and saw his dreams diminished.
LOWE: what was this man who had so many roots in Texas doing in Minneapolis?”
SAMUELS: “George Floyd went to Minneapolis because so many of his friends and people he had known had gone there and gotten their lives together. And so, what he was hoping to do was get a sense of sobriety, get a good job and be able to support for it and to be able to support his family. He had a little girl named Gianna.”
LOWE: “I think it’s a poignant moment when you mentioned that the roommate he had, they decide to move their mattresses into the living room together. Why did they do that?”
SAMUELS: “Because they wanted to look out for each other and to be held accountable, and even though it has three bedrooms, they go, and they put their mattresses right next to each other because they want to be able to help each other get through it.”
LOWE: “Eventually, though, that roommate succumbs to his addictions. And shortly thereafter, George Floyd’s own mother passes away. What happened to George Floyd’s life once those two key people were gone?”
SAMUELS: “He begins to tell his friends how much he met that incident messed him up. And then a little bit later comes the death of his mom, with whom he had this intense relationship, where when he was a kid, she’d he’d kiss her on the cheek so much, she’d say, just kiss me on the other side. It’s too much.
LOWE: “She said ‘My cheeks are numb.”
SAMUELS: “Yeah, see my cheeks are numb. And so, these things begin to lead him to a spiral. And so, by the time Memorial Day of 2020 comes the George Floyd, who just in a couple months of being in Minneapolis, had found sobriety two jobs, a nice house, a girlfriend. He’s seeing all those things fade away.”
Floyd contracted covid, lost his job, and felt isolated.
SAMUELS: “He was at a low point, and he’s working really hard to find a way to fight his drug dependency.”
LOWE: “He was actually using drugs the day he was killed.”
On May 25, 2020 he went to buy cigarettes at Cup Foods, a corner convenience store, where he allegedly used a counterfeit 20 dollar bill – an allegation over which he was handcuffed, and executed in the street. The cell phone video of the murder eventually was eventually seen by millions.
LOWE: what is it about his death that you think struck a chord?
SAMUELS: “It was the clarity of what was being seen. That it wasn’t grainy. It was up close. That you could see the look on the police officer’s face. Two was the fact that you could focus on it, that nothing else is going on in America at the time. And the third thing is that it gave credence to what so many people had heard about, had heard black people in this country complaining about but had never seen before, which is this heinous look at a man, an agent of the state, punishing a black man who is pleading for mercy, pleading for his life. People understood that on the visceral level.”
LOWE: “After we finished reading this book. What do you hope that we have learned not just about George Floyd, but about ourselves?”
SAMUELS: “I hope that people understand that through reading about George Floyd’s life, that systemic racism is not an academic concept, nor is it a theoretical concept. It is something that plays out within the carrying out of policies and within our lives, the prejudices that we carry, and that if we don’t acknowledge those prejudices and those histories, there’s no real way that we can find ourselves to get out of it.”