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In their new book, “His Name Is George Floyd,” Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa examine the conditions of Black life in America. Here, they share how their reporting transformed their understanding.

ROBERT: I could hardly stomach reading about that white supremacist last weekend who drove to a grocery store in Buffalo to kill Black people — people who look like us.

A familiar feeling set in. We had spent a year exploring the underbelly of the American promise, making sense of the version that George Floyd knew. We had ducked gunshots doing on-the-street reporting and calmed down depressed witnesses who hit themselves while being interviewed. We had to watch the horrific video of death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop again and again.

Our book, “His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” focuses on how Floyd’s life was shaped by the structures of systemic racism and whether his death did anything to dismantle them. Occasionally, people we knew worried about the impact that this traumatic reporting would have on our psyche. They’d look us in the eyes, earnestly, and ask, “Are you okay?”

It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

TOLUSE: There was, of course, an easy — if not fully forthright — answer. We’re journalists, we’re fine. As reporters, we have a professional duty to remain a step removed from the news, staying firmly on the right side of the line between covering a story and becoming consumed by it.

We also had the privilege of professional distance — after all, we had not known Floyd before he was murdered, did not share in the nightmares that haunted his family members, did not suffer from the crying spells and post-traumatic stress that troubled his friends.

ROBERT: But nothing I’ve ever worked on has ever left me feeling so human, so raw. Honestly, there were times I did not feel fine. I had embedded with some of George Floyd’s closest friends and family during the trial of the former police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, and we were living in a city on edge.

I felt like I was on a parallel journey. As a journalist, you try not to center stories on yourself — the work, after all, is not about you. But as a Black man in America, it kind of was.

TOLUSE: In some ways, the fact that we shared his skin color was considered an asset as we were tasked with unlocking the answers to two critical questions: Who was George Floyd? And what was it like to grow up in his America?

Living our own American journeys as Black men helped us understand Floyd — his insecurities over his size and skin, his nervousness during police encounters, his feeling that, as he once articulated, “people quick to count you out, man, but just so strict on counting you in.”

That comment encapsulates the operating principle of systemic racism, which Floyd experienced in housing, education, policing, criminal justice and health care.

As we sought to tell Floyd’s story with all its nuance and fullness — never shading over his flaws or mistakes — we were challenged by the journalistic mission of explaining, through one man’s life, how injustice operates in the 21st century.

As we dove into the mission, the hundreds of hours of interviews and research we conducted brought the power of racism to life for us.

ROBERT: The defining moment for me was one Sunday evening in April 2021. Photojournalist Joshua Lott and I were covering a rally in St. Paul, Minn., organized by Toshira Garraway, whose boyfriend, Justin Tiegen, died in dubious circumstances after a police chase in 2009.

When she asked those who had loved ones killed by police to share their stories, she begged them to be brief. Her request was about the constraints of time: There were so many families whose voices needed to be heard. Some of the victims had mental illnesses; some did not. Some came from middle-class families; some did not. Some had arrest records; others did not. What the families had in common was that they believed the police covered up the fatal encounters to justify their actions — and that almost very victim was Black.

One mother who spoke that day looked like my own mom, and I began imagining her at such an event. The sadnesses were piling up. I had started that day watching one of George Floyd’s brothers, Philonise, break down in the middle of a church service. And a little before the rally started, Joshua and I met up with Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend, who was having a panic attack.

“I don’t know if I can handle any more,” I told Joshua as the rally concluded.

The crowd had not fully dispersed, though, when people learned that another police officer had shot and killed a young Black man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright. The encounter started with a minor offense — Wright was driving a car with expired tags — and ended with his death. This was the type of fatal escalation that my mother warned about, the type of thing that is much more likely to happen if you are Black.

For everyone at the rally, the threat of police violence felt like it was encircling us.

Before reporting this book, I considered systemic racism to be an unmoving, dark cloud that hung over us. As I watched life unfurl for these families, I understood that the residue of America’s original sin was something more terrifying. Racism is a pervasive, insidious force threatening to corrupt the spirit of every American if it is not acknowledged and confronted. I realized why so many of the families felt they had little choice but to fight racial injustice. You could not simply run away.

TOLUSE: I had tried to run away — from the video. For more than a year, I managed to avoid it.

In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, I would turn away when TV news started to show the shaky footage and speed-scroll when the imagery automatically began to play in my social media feeds.

Yes, I was covering the protests and the political movement sparked by Floyd’s heinous death, but I had no intention of viewing the video that had helped ignite the flame. The prospect of watching another Black person be killed by an agent of the state — during a pandemic that had disproportionately decimated Black communities, in the middle of an election season that had revealed the growing political power of blatant racism — just seemed like too much.

But when it came time to write this book — tracing Floyd’s family history back to the abusive eras of slavery and sharecropping, documenting his struggles to navigate prejudiced housing and education systems, and re-creating the scene of his death — I could no longer turn away.

Sitting alone in the quiet of predawn writing sessions, I opened my laptop to a bookmarked YouTube page that advertised “RAW” imagery with “graphic content and language some may find offensive.” My hand hovered over the space bar as I hit play and pause over and over again to document every frame. When that became too cumbersome, I slowed down the speed of the video until the footage proceeded at a haunting crawl, allowing me to capture every word, every movement, every split-second decision, every breath.

The harrowing video left an indelible imprint in my brain.It played and paused in my subconscious, Floyd’s dying words echoing while I slept.

“They’re going to kill me.”

“I. Can’t. Breathe.”

I ended up watching Floyd die more than 100 times, from a half-dozen vantage points.

And as difficult as it was to spend so much time engaging with a death, I understood that for the people who knew and loved Floyd, it was grievously painful.

So I was not surprised at their answers when I asked many of them when they had first seen the video.

“I still haven’t watched it,” several of Floyd’s friends and family members told me. “And I never will.”

ROBERT: It took me months to even feel comfortable asking that question. I knew how easy it can be for news organizations to reduce being Black in America to a life of pain and pity, as if that were the full story. And I wanted to make sure the people I spent time with knew I meant it when I said: “I don’t want to talk to you about his death. I want to talk about his life.”

They told me about Floyd’s sense of humor and humility. They pulled up text messages and rummaged through storage units to find old photos; they showed us old poems and song lyrics that he wrote as a way to get his mind off his mistakes.

Even though those friends had encountered so much pain and prejudice, they hardly wavered in their belief that a better tomorrow was achievable. They joined us in believing in the power of journalism. And they did what I do when I worry that things in this country won’t get better: They cried with friends, talked with therapists. They prayed. And then they kept going.

But as the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death approaches, the public has largely moved on. The efforts in 2020 to read more books discussing racism have shifted to a push to ban those same kinds of books in 2022. And although there have been more convictions of police officers in cases in which they murdered Black civilians, African Americans have continued to be shot and killed at disproportionately higher rates.

After Buffalo, President Biden referred to white supremacy as a “poison.” It is. In reporting the book, I asked Biden how the country could find its cure and eradicate its racist past. He told us that hate will never fully go away — it will find ways to hide — and the key is to find ways to contain it.

When I sat down with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, he lamented that momentum to make significant legislative changes to reduce racial inequality waned so quickly that he had probably missed his chance. “We may not get another shot at this,” he told me.

TOLUSE: Walz’s pessimism stood in stark contrast to the message of perseverance we heard when we sat down with the Rev. Jesse Jackson last year. Jackson used a football analogy to describe his sense of the status of the fight for racial justice after Chauvin’s conviction: “This is a first down, not a touchdown.” He emphasized the importance of acknowledging victories large and small within the movement while staying focused on the ultimate goal of equality — a goal he had been pursuing longer than either of us had been alive.

ROBERT: One of my earliest childhood memories is of sitting atop my father’s shoulders at a West Indian Day parade because he wanted me to see that a Black man could run for president. I remember Jackson running across the stage, telling the crowd to keep hope alive.

After spending nearly two years diving into the history of race in America, I imagined how many times Jackson must have felt that the country was on the precipice of achieving racial equality, only to see a debilitating backlash. I thought about how disappointing it must be that racism continues to have such resonance.

Toward the end of the interview, I asked, “Rev. Jackson, how do you actually keep hope alive?”

I didn’t realize it, but I was essentially asking a version of, “Are you okay?”

Jackson asked Tolu and me to consider the progress the country had made. He ticked off cities where he once protested discriminatory laws, cities that were now being run by Black mayors and police chiefs. He talked about the days when Black people could not publicly question a corrupt police officer, much less expect a jury to send that officer to prison. He looked at us — two Black journalists writing a book on a defining moment in American history — and reminded us that there was a time when mainstream publishers wouldn’t even think about giving us the chance.

“We’re winning,” Jackson told us. “No matter, what, remember: We’re still winning.”

This past week, I thought about the pain I saw in Minneapolis and the new pain felt in Buffalo. I closed my eyes and thought about what Jackson had told us. Then, I found myself uttering, “We’re winning, we’re still winning,” wishing that it were true.



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