Reform Requires a Complete Picture of George Floyd

I don’t need to know much about George Floyd to be horrified by his murder. I can’t shake the image of Floyd calling out to his dead mother as he was strangled. But if we are holding up Floyd as a rallying cry for reform, then we do need to know about him. The information we need about Floyd is how his life was affected by the criminal justice system. The most important fact is that he was murdered by a policeman. But the rest of his life can teach us important things too, and might make us a little bit uncomfortable.

I recently read a New York Times article about the life of George Floyd. It went into granular detail about his exploits in sports, at work, and in religion. We found out about why he moved to Minneapolis from Houston. We found out about his propensity to hug people. We heard from an NBA star that he physically resembled. He had never been in a fight. He told jokes to cheer up his teammates after a loss. But the article totally passed over his involvement in the criminal justice system. This left me puzzled, since his involvement in the criminal justice system is the reason for his notoriety. Moreover, he is being held up as an example of why we need to reform the criminal justice system. Given that, readers need a complete picture.

The New York Times Passes Over Floyd’s Criminal History

But he returned to Texas after a couple of years, and lost nearly a decade to arrests and incarcerations on mostly drug-related offenses. By the time he left his hometown for good a few years ago, moving 1,200 miles to Minneapolis for work, he was ready for a fresh start…

For about a decade starting in his early 20s, Mr. Floyd had a string of arrests in Houston, according to court and police records. One of those arrests, for a $10 drug deal in 2004, cost him 10 months in a state jail.

Here’s a summary from the Daily Mail. “Floyd was sentenced to 10 months in jail for having less than one gram of cocaine in a December 2005 arrest. Ok, so far the Times is doing fine.  “He had previously been sentenced to eight months for the same offense, stemming from an October 2002 arrest.” The Times omitted this. “Floyd was arrested in 2002 for criminal trespassing and served 30 days in jail.” Omitted. “He had another stint for a theft in August 1998.” Also omitted. What is lost in these omissions is the implication that Floyd might have been a cocaine addict in the early 2000s.

The New York Times Omits the Facts of Floyd’s 2007 Armed Robbery

This is the most frustrating part: “Four years later, Mr. Floyd pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and spent four years in prison.” That’s the only thing the article said. They complete omit what actually happened. Court documents detail the facts of the assault:

Here’s The Daily Mail again. Compare the detail provided here with the detail provided by the Times.

“Floyd pleaded guilty to the robbery where another suspect posed as a worker for the local water department, wearing a blue uniform in an attempt to gain access to the woman’s home… But when the woman opened the door, she realized he was not with the water department and attempted to close the door, leading to a struggle. At that time, a Ford Explorer pulled up to the home and five other males exited the car and went up to the front door. The report states the largest of the group, who the victim later identified as Floyd, ‘forced his way inside the residence, placed a pistol against the complainant’s abdomen, and forced her into the living room area of the residence. ‘This large suspect then proceeded to search the residence while another armed suspect guarded the complainant, who was struck in the head and sides by this second armed suspect with his pistol while she screamed for help.’ Not finding any drugs or money at the house, the men took jewelry and the woman’s cell phone and fled in their car. A neighbor who witnessed the robbery took down the car’s license plate number. Later, police tracked down the car and found Floyd behind the wheel. He was later identified by the woman as the large suspect who placed a gun against her stomach and forced her into her living room, the document states. 

(Emphasis added.)

They New York Times Omits the Fact that Floyd Was High When He Was Killed

Floyd went to prison for five years. He got out in 2014, and remained conviction-free until his death. He did not remain crime-free, as we know from the medical examiner’s report. He had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. These facts, without Floyd’s history, are interesting but not useful. But taken together, Floyd seems to be a man whose life was derailed by drug use. That’s an important thing for us to remember as we decide how to reform our laws. But the New York Times did not include the facts about his drug use in their biographical article.

Why Does This Matter? Murder is Murder, Right?

None of these things excuse the officer’s conduct. I hope they are kept out of the criminal trial, since they are inflammatory and irrelevant there. But they are relevant for people trying to reform the law. Could we have saved George Floyd by keeping him off of drugs? That is a question that would not have occurred to a reader of the Times.

The most important point is that any discussion of criminal justice reform will have to grapple with the idea that none of the people involved in the system are perfect. Many, like Floyd, are lifelong criminals who never managed to “get out” of the street. Their problems are compounded by drug use, mental health issues, and many other issues that can’t all be solved by the police. We have to understand that the people involved in the system might not be people that we would have over for dinner. Nonetheless, they don’t deserve to be treated the way Floyd was treated. We should think of Floyd as a martyr, but not as a hero, because the truth matters.

By failing to include a complete picture, the Times robs us of the ability to decide for ourselves what to make of George Floyd. They did not think this information was relevant to the public, even though they were publishing an article on his life. I can only speculate as to why they left this out. Many people assign political motives to the Times. Were they trying to make George Floyd seem like a better man, so that his death would seem more outrageous, and more people would read their coverage? Were they trying to downplay his drug addiction because they are politically hostile to drug enforcement? It’s all speculation. But I prefer to have all the facts, and I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get them from the Times.

Notes

Here’s another summary of Floyd’s record from the Sun.

Most people (on Twitter) realize that Floyd was not a hero. But here’s a couple of people who don’t.

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