Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels on Their New Book, His Name Is George Floyd
Part of a Series
This week, Daniella is joined by Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, Washington Post journalists and authors of the new book His Name Is George Floyd. They discuss George Floyd’s life and legacy; how systemic racism affected his daily life; and what lessons everyone can learn about racial justice more than two years after his murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. Daniella also shares a roundup of recent good news.
Learn more about the podcast here.
Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. It’s been more than two years since George Floyd was murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police and sparked an international movement calling for police reform and racial justice. Our guests today are Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, whose book, His Name Is George Floyd, explores his life, legacy, how systemic racism affected him, and what lessons we can learn about racial justice from his story. Please stick around for that interview. But first, you know, we’ve got to get to some news.
I want to try something a little different this week, though. There’s a lot of really challenging news to be consumed and up to date on right now, but sometimes we need a break. I need a break. So today, we’re doing good news only. And I have a list of a few recent wins we can carry with us for when things get bleak, because unfortunately, you know, they’re going to get bleak. So, let’s start the good news. First of all, we’d be remiss if we did a recent good news section and didn’t mention the historic Safer Communities Act passed by Congress last month. This—I would say—is probably one of the biggest policy wins of the year. It’s the first gun reform bill to be signed into federal law in 30 years and it does a lot to keep us safer. The legislation incentivizes states to implement extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws. It also expands background checks for individuals under 21, [and] closes the so-called boyfriend loophole, blocking people convicted of domestic violence from purchasing guns. Finally, it provides roughly $250 million in funding for community-driven programs to prevent violence before it happens. Now, of course, there’s a lot more to be done on gun reform, like, a lot more. But this is a historic breakthrough and a foundation for future legislation, so we should celebrate it.
But it’s not just federal lawmakers who have responded quickly and effectively to some of our most urgent challenges. Let’s turn to the states that are giving me hope on abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. Some state legislators and governors are really stepping up. California, Washington, [and] Oregon all signed on to a commitment to protect people seeking abortions in their states. Alongside this, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) announced $1 million in emergency funds for reproductive care clinics in the state. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) signed an executive order aimed at protecting women coming into the state for abortion services, where abortion remains legal. These are just a few examples and—shameless plug here—the Center for American Progress’ Women’s Initiative recently published a comprehensive list of state abortion protections, which you can find online, and we will link to it in the transcript once that is up.
Now, as long as we’re on the topic of the Supreme Court, I also have to remind you that Ketanji Brown Jackson was very recently sworn in as the first Black woman to serve on the bench. She’s extremely well-qualified and will bring fresh perspectives that are clearly desperately needed on the high court. While she may not be able to single-handedly turn the tide of the supermajority, she can deliver us important opinions and analysis, while helping the bench be more representative of all Americans.
The next thing I want to mention is something we did previously celebrate on the podcast, but I think it’s worth revisiting. The speed and efficiency with which the COVID vaccines have been rolled out and approved for different age groups has been astounding. And now we’re at the point where even children under 5 can get vaccinated. It’s pretty miraculous, and it’s going a long way towards protecting people against severe infection and allowing people the comfort and security to return to some normal everyday functioning, all while keeping the burdens off of our first responders, our medical workers, and our hospitals. And that is good news to me.
Now, let’s talk about a win from just last week. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, a piece of legislation that will boost domestic manufacturing of semiconductors. Okay, I know it sounds extremely wonky and scientific. But the bottom line is that this will lower costs for American families, create jobs, improve supply chains, speed our transition to clean energy, and enhance American competitiveness. It’s a true game-changer for our economy, and the Biden administration showed tremendous leadership to get this deal over the finish line.
We also have a few really promising things happening in Congress right now that could become good news very soon. First, we’re seeing gaining momentum for legislation banning members of Congress and their families from trading stocks. This is a long-overdue piece of commonsense legislation that will help restore faith in government, and a topic that our experts here at CAP [Action] have worked on for years. Next, the House passed legislation to enshrine marriage equality into law, a move designed to protect against the Supreme Court’s stated intention of revisiting and potentially overturning the right to same-sex and interracial marriage. This heads to the Senate next, where it looks possible that this could pass. Finally, as of this taping, we have got a comprehensive reconciliation deal on the table. I know, I know, but it appears that this is real. The bill would promote energy security, reduce the cost of medicines, increase access to health care, make corporations pay their fair share, and reduce inflation. This deal is an extraordinary achievement for President Biden’s progressive vision and would chart a new path for how we grow the economy—one that puts working families first. To quote the president himself, if this passes, it’s a BFD.
So, I hope this roundup left you feeling a little rosier about the state of our country, our immediate future, and the hard work lawmakers are doing to protect our rights. If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you’re streaming from, and we really appreciate your feedback. Stick around for our interview with Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels in just a beat.
Tolu Olorunnipa is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the Post in 2019 and previously covered the White House. Before that he spent five years at Bloomberg News, where he reported on politics and policy from Washington and Florida. Robert Samuels is a national political enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy, and people. He previously reported on life in Washington, D.C., for the Post’s social issues team. Samuels joined the Post in 2011 after spending nearly five years working at the Miami Herald. Together, they’ve written a new book, His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, which just hit bookshelves in May. Tolu and Robert, thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent” today.
Robert Samuels: Thanks so much for having us.
Toluse Olorunnipa: It’s really great to be with you.
Gibbs Léger: Congratulations, first and foremost, to the two of you on a really phenomenal book. I know it expands on Polk and Peabody award-winning journalism from The Washington Post on George Floyd’s life from 2020. All of it has been really moving and really important work. So I want to start with the big picture before getting into more detail about the book specifically. So, Tolu, to you first: Why, in a country with so many egregious examples of police brutality did George Floyd’s death spark a global movement for change? You know, do you think it was because his murder at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on tape? Because Donald Trump was president? You know, like, what was it about this?
Olorunnipa: I think it was a mixture of all of those things and more. I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic in the spring of 2020. People couldn’t go leave their house and go to watch a sports game or go to a concert, and they kind of had to be stuck at home and sort of watching what was happening on the news. And on that day, George Floyd’s murder was gripping news because it was so symbolic. Not only was the video so graphic, but watching an agent of the state, pressing their knee on the neck of someone who was crying out for mercy, someone who happened to be a Black man, a person of color. It was not only visceral to watch that happen, but it also symbolized what people have been talking about and experiencing in America for generations: the state, the government, the institutions of this country not listening to the pleas for mercy from people of color. And I think that was part of what led so many people to sort of key into George Floyd’s humanity and see him as someone who could have been their brother, could have been someone they knew, crying out for mercy. And the fact that it was a video that lasted for almost 10 minutes—it wasn’t one of these sort of grainy, split-second videos where you’re not really sure who’s at fault—I think that played into it as well. I think there’s a human nature, where everyone saw that what happened was wrong and was not acceptable.
Gibbs Léger: And, Robert, I’m interested in the decision you two made to write a book about George Floyd’s life, as opposed to just his death. What do you hope it adds to the conversation about Floyd and his legacy?
Samuels: Well, we wanted readers to understand that if you are horrified by the racism that revealed itself on May 25, 2020, when Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, you might also be equally horrified to see how racism operated in George Floyd’s life. Because we hoped that people would understand that what they saw wasn’t the only incident of how this thing called systemic or institutional racism works. And we thought we had this really wonderful opportunity—a necessary opportunity—to be able to decode some of that, to think about all of these institutions, the things that create the social safety net, the things that are supposed to propel the American dream. All of them that we looked at, they had this history of racist policies that were baked in and continued to shape who George Floyd was. So we could not divorce his death from the way he lived. And we hoped that readers would understand why that was important to do.
Gibbs Léger: And Tolu, you all had incredible access to a wide range of people for this book, be it George Floyd’s close friends and family, to our political leaders like President Biden; Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz; Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose team prosecuted the criminal case against Derek Chauvin; and more. What surprised you most about Floyd when you were researching his life and legacy for the book? And were you surprised by any details that people told you about him?
Olorunnipa: Yeah, so when you look at George Floyd, you look at, you know, the image of someone who’s 6 foot 6, 240-odd pounds, who works out, and is strong. And you might think that, you know, he’s sort of this tough guy or someone who, you know, is intimidating, according to some of these stereotypes that we have. But one of the things that we found out, was that George Floyd, not only was he a mama’s boy, as we heard him in the video of his death calling out for his mother, but he was someone that would go around saying, “I love you” to everyone. And we write about in the book, how George Floyd would say, “I love you” to strangers, and to lovers, and to friends—and to his male friends and female friends—and his colleagues and relatives. And it was just something that he said to end every conversation or text it to people, and at the end of the text message, tap out, “I LOVE YOU” in all caps.
And it was surprising that he did sort of have that loving nature about him, even though when people are killed by police, often there’s this choreography where people go and they dig up the worst thing that you can find out about them, and you try to smear the victim. It was important for us to take him out of those stereotypes and take him out of those social media posts and make him the real person that he was. He was someone who loved and who was loved. And it was important for us to showcase all of his personality in this book and make sure that we understood that he was a real person. He was not just a meme. He was not just a protest symbol. He was a person who loved and was loved, and that was something that came through in all of these interviews. These interviews included, obviously, people like Joe Biden, and people like the governor of Minnesota, and a lot of people who were moved by his death. But we also wanted to show the people who knew him when he was alive, people who knew him when he was younger, and they also were moved by him. And they also were influenced by him. And he was an influential person in his community. And that was something that came through across the course of these interviews that we did over almost a year.
Gibbs Léger: And, Robert, you included a chapter in the book on George Floyd’s enslaved ancestors, and how the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow fed into the systemic racism that Floyd faced throughout his life. Talk with us a little more about that chapter and the impact that all of that had on George Floyd.
Samuels: We often think about slavery as something that happened long ago, a chapter that’s closed, and a lot of people think maybe we shouldn’t even traffic in thinking about it. It’s one of those debates we continually have nowadays. But what our research showed was that looking back at George Floyd’s ancestry was important and critical to understand where he was and why he had grown up poor. One of the interesting things that we learned, Daniella, was George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather, Hillary Thomas Stewart—who was the first person on his mother’s side to have been emancipated—was a pretty industrious man. He had accrued 500 acres of land in eastern North Carolina, which would have made him one of the wealthiest Black landowners in the entire state. And we know if this was sort of the beginning of the fundamental American dream story—look at how we think about so many people who are heirs to fortunes and where it started from. It started with someone like Hillary Thomas Stewart, an industrious man who was able to pass things down through generations. But he was a Black man in a country that was unprepared for him to have such success. And before he could make a single intergenerational transfer, that land and all that wealth was stripped from him through unscrupulous tax deals and being forced to sign documents that he could not read, because he was not allowed to read because of his position as a Black man.
So in a single generation, a story that should have been the beginnings of an American dream, starts to reveal itself as being sort of what we call the underbelly of the American promise. Not only does it take away an opportunity, it also sets the family on a course of fear to know that in this country, sometimes, if you try to succeed and work hard, people will steal and rob your success. And following that, his family were forced to exist and subsist under the abusive and exploitative practices of sharecropping. So one stereotype that—at least in the case of George Floyd’s family—is gloriously untrue is they were not poor people because they did not work. They were not welfare queens or ne’er-do-wells. For his entire family history, as long as they had been emancipated, they were industrious, hardworking people. The question the book tries to posit is why—despite all that hard work—they were never able to break loose of the chains of poverty.
Gibbs Léger: That is really fascinating. And, Tolu, I want to touch on something that Robert just said. It feels like there’s been a backlash, in some ways, to the activism and advocacy that we saw the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, you know, not dissimilar from the push and pull of progress that we see play out over and over again on so many topics. And a lot of the accurate discussion about our country’s history and the role that slavery and racism has played in it is being stifled across many schools across this country. Can you talk about how you think this book is being received in this environment [and] in this moment? And what’s your message to those who say— wrongfully, in my opinion—that these types of conversations about slavery, about its impacts, don’t belong in schools?
Olorunnipa: Yeah, we wrote this book, even as that backlash was forming, and as it was building up steam and getting political power. So it was very much on our mind as we wrote some of these chapters. We wanted people to engage with this book outside of the realm of that political backlash, because we don’t see ourselves as political actors. We don’t see this book as a political book. It is a book about informing people about the history of this country, about the experience of George Floyd, about the movement that was sparked by his death. And it is unfortunate that sometimes people use history and they use it for, you know, political purposes, and they try to distort an accurate rendering of our history. They try to shade over parts of the American story that aren’t as flattering for people from a certain perspective.
And as journalists, we’re all about getting to the truth. We’re all about presenting an accurate and full picture of history and of current events. And one of the things we wanted to do in this book was let people know that it’s important to understand the history, to understand the current affairs, understand why George Floyd was on the corner where he was where he was pulled over by the police on May 25, 2020. There’s a history behind that. There’s a history behind the look on his face, and why he was so terrified when the police officer tapped on his window. And we go into the history of criminal justice, and how George Floyd was, in some ways, caught up in the war on drugs, and the fact that he spent a lot of time behind bars, often for nonviolent offenses, and which this country decided to pursue this war on drugs and lock up millions of people for nonviolent offenses and how his experience in prison was so terrifying that you would not be surprised that he’d be afraid when a police officer walked up to him.
So it’s important for us to grapple with that history to know that all the things that are happening currently are part of a story that needs to be told in its full way. And it was important for us as journalists to bring that information forward. Now, we know that there’s going to be people who decide they don’t want to pay attention to that history or decide that history should not be taught. But we do think it’s important for Americans—and for all of us—to know our history, to know where we have come from, to know what is influencing things that are happening today, and not try to shade over things that might not look good in our history, because it’s important for us to grapple with all of it, because it’s all having an impact on the current stratification that we have in our society. And we see that very clearly in the life of George Floyd.
Gibbs Léger: So, Robert, how do you think we as a country can best honor George Floyd’s legacy. Is it long-needed police reforms like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that failed to pass the Senate last year? Or is it something more?
Samuels: When I think about what I learned from learning about the life of George Floyd, I see a man who was constantly striving in this country for people to see him in his fullness, to see all the nuance and the shades of his character, to understand that even though he might have had some parts of his life that folks would find unbecoming, that they would see that there are levels to him, that there are complications to him, that his Blackness as a singular force, as a singular part of his identity, didn’t define the whole story. That’s George Floyd. And that’s what he wanted.
And I think when I think about all the people who had taken up his cause after he died, they were saying the same things. You know, Daniella, one of the first things that George Floyd says to the police officers, after he tells them he has COVID—which was true—and he had claustrophobia—which was true. He says, “Why don’t you believe me?” And I think there’s something really powerful in that. And lawmakers have choices to make, but we as people who ingest this information and readers have a choice to make too. And the question that we hope this book helps people to answer is how can we join folks in seeing their fullness and their wholeness, recognizing that the past was what it was?
Gibbs Léger: So I like to try and end these interviews on a positive note, when possible. So final question to you both: As you talked about, you know, one of the many takeaways from the book was just how loving and optimistic George Floyd was. So as you think about the research that you’ve done and the conversations you’ve had, is there one thing that you take away from his life that gives you hope for the fight for racial equity, and equality, and justice in this country? Tolu, I’ll start with you, and then Robert.
Olorunnipa: Yeah, that’s a great question, Daniella. I think just looking at George Floyd’s life and how, when he was knocked down, when he struggled, when he suffered, when he made mistakes that he regretted, he picked himself back up. He wrote to himself. He tried to encourage himself and he continued chasing his dream. His story, as we write it, is a classic American story of striving and trying to overcome barriers. And that does leave some optimism, some inspiration that we can continue to push forward, even as we see this backlash, even as we see things not necessarily changing as quickly as one might like. There is that optimism from George Floyd’s life itself that shows that—you know, that continued spirit of optimism, that continued belief in the American promise. That continued belief that progress can be made is something that we see in his story, time and time and time again, from his childhood all the way through adulthood. It’s one of the reasons he left Houston and ended up in Minneapolis. So it is something that is inspirational. And we hope that people who read the book can get that part of his spirit, even as, you know, his story did end tragically. But he did have that spirit of striving and continuing to pick himself up and continue to try for making something better of his life. And that is something that I hope people take away from reading the book.
Samuels: When we have these sorts of discussions, I think it’s often that we think about racism as a disease and affliction that really hurts Black people, that structural racism is about the pain of Black people and talking about it is about the absolution of the Black experience. You know, we spend a lot of time in this book talking about Derek Chauvin and the nature of policing, and that Derek Chauvin himself was also shaped by these structures, right? He learned how to police in a country that instilled stereotypes and prejudices that would facilitate his feeling that he could take the life of George Floyd. When those two Americas met on May 25, 2020, you saw someone carrying out the fruition of some of these racial tropes as the agent and someone expressing their displeasure as the victim. Up until his last moments, what did George Floyd do? He cried for his mother. He begged, “Please, Mr. Officer.” He told him what was going on. He went to work that day, in his last periods of life, for him to be seen as a human being. And the hope that we have—and we hope readers can take from George Floyd’s story, and the number of people who came in his line and came after him, and fought after he died—is that when you see an injustice in this country, you don’t, say, sit passively and just say, “That’s how it is.” You go to work.
Gibbs Léger: Well, that is a wonderful note to end this interview on. I want to thank you both for this great book, for all of your work. And thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent” today.
Olorunnipa: Thanks so much.
Samuels: Thank you so much for having us.
Gibbs Léger: That’s it for this week. As always, thank you for listening. Be sure to go back and check out the previous episodes. No “Bachelorette” update today because I’m taking a little time off. But I have to talk about it anyway. There is one thing that I just want to say about the people who find it weird that people who go on the show become really close friends with some of the people they’re on the show with. And I’ve seen a lot on Twitter—maybe I’m just on Twitter too much—I see a lot on Twitter, people like, “Don’t you have friends before you get on the show? Like I don’t understand how like, Nate and Rodney, for example, are like best friends,” like, blah, blah, blah.
Let’s normalize people making new friends throughout their lives. It’s not weird. It’s weird to think that you’re going to have the same set of friends that you had in high school and never expand your friendship group for the rest of your life. Like, that’s what’s weird to me. It is completely normal for adults to meet other adults and be like, “Hey, I like this person. I want to spend some time with them.” I’m not sure why that’s such a weird or foreign concept, but like, let’s not make it weird. It’s normal. It’s what happens in my life and what happens to a lot of people. And I think that’s a good thing. Because the more people you get to know, the more you expand your friendship circle. I think that’s only a beneficial thing. So that’s what I have to say about “The Bachelorette.”
Anyway, there is still a pandemic, but this is good news. So, people, if you’re boosted and if you happen to get the ‘rona, like I did—she came for me a couple of weeks ago—chances are you’re going to be all right. And that’s what I’d like to leave you with. All right. Take care, and we’ll talk to you next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer, and Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. Rachel Lim provided research and production support for this episode. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.