George Floyd, Remembered: “He Was a Beautiful Man”

His name was George, but they called him King. 

Michael worked the door at Conga Latin Bistro in Northeast Minneapolis for the past three years along with his friend and coworker George Floyd. Floyd was a man of a few affectionate nicknames, including King, Perry, Big Floyd, and, most commonly, just Floyd. 

“He was a star,” Michael says. (He asked that Mpls.St.Paul use only his first name to protect his privacy.)

The two men were very close: The half dozen–strong crew of security guards often felt more like family than just coworkers or even friends. While Floyd wasn’t the oldest, the other security guards looked up to him as if he were.

“He had that stoic way about him,” says Michael.

That quality could also feel like a challenge for this group of men—many of them African American, large in body, highly masculine in manner. 

Michael, for example, is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter and educator. “Men—we have struggles,” he says. “And we don’t have people to talk to. Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask another man.” 

Floyd—King—was the man they turned to. 

Michael says that Floyd made him want to be a better man. “I’ll tell you a story,” he starts. “We were in the car, and I was saying, ‘I hate this, I hate that,’ and Floyd said, ‘Pull over, let me out.’

“I said, ‘Why?! We’re on the freeway!’

“He said, ‘Because you’re talking too much hate.’

“And I haven’t used that word since then. This is the first time I’ve used it.”

As I set about the task of writing this snapshot of George Floyd, a man whose name we’ve all come to know, I encountered a common thread in my interviews. That is, a fierce loyalty and reluctance to speak to the press. Michael said I was the first and last interview he would give. He told me he wanted to protect the memory of his friend. But he needed people to know: “He was a beautiful man.” 

Bombarded by press and activists seeking justice for Floyd, Floyd’s friends and acquaintances told me they were experiencing a particular pain and reticence. Watching their friend lose his life in a public forum had led to both a powerful social movement and a media circus. And that made the mourning experience harder than anyone should have to endure. 

Now they had a decision to make: Share what they could about the living, breathing human they loved, or keep those memories private. I am grateful to those who were willing to share what they could to allow us to know George Floyd as he lived, in whatever limited capacity we now can. 

For the past four years, much of George Floyd’s life centered on Conga Latin Bistro, Minneapolis’s premier nightclub for Latin dance. Salsa, bachata, merengue, cumbia: You could enjoy all here.

Floyd worked at Conga three nights a week, a job he secured not long after arriving in Minneapolis. He moved to this, his adopted city, from Houston, Texas—specifically, from a poor, black housing project known to locals as the Bricks.

“He had that southern hospitality,” says Michael. “And that’s what drew people in.”

Floyd’s early adulthood seemed to be defined, in large part, by his incredible size and his athletic prowess. He was a basketball star in high school, and an athletic scholarship sent him to South Florida Community College, then Texas A&M. Floyd was the first of his siblings to go to college. During school, he also dabbled in rap and hip-hop under the name “Big Floyd” with the prominent Houston hip-hop artist DJ Screw. 

College didn’t stick, and Floyd wound up returning to his hometown after a couple of years. Like too many black men growing up in poverty in America, Floyd wound up in the criminal justice system after being incarcerated on drug charges. 

A $10 drug deal in 2004 got Floyd a sentence of nearly a year in state jail. 

The criminal justice system followed him for about a decade, mostly for drug and robbery charges. The most serious charge, in 2007, was an armed home invasion robbery, which got Floyd a sentence of five years. 

After his release in 2013, he had found religion, returned home, and become something of a guiding force and figurehead for other young men in the Cuney Homes projects of the Third Ward. A church program for men who wanted to change their lives brought him to Minneapolis.

The local Latin dance community is tight-knit. Here, the word family often gets used. And Floyd—instantly recognizable for his giant frame, easy smile, and familiar way with people—quickly became a fixture. 

Jovanni Thunstrom, owner of Conga and Floyd’s boss, friend, and landlord, remembers the day four years ago when Floyd arrived at the club after answering a Craigslist ad looking for help at the door.  

“He was six-foot-seven and muscular,” Thunstrom recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, man! This guy looks good for security.’” But Floyd projected a different energy at the door of the club. He struck patrons as shy, and many remember him for his respectful, easygoing manner. He showed respect, and people remembered him for it. While moving through the club, he always tapped people on the shoulder and greeted them with a “What’s up?” 

“He was so tall he would bend down to talk to you and take both hands when he shook your hand,” Thunstrom says. 

“Some security guys think they’re heaven,” he said. “But he was one of my best workers. He always showed up to work, always helped, always came in a good mood.” Floyd insisted on helping to clean up beer bottles at the end of the night or doing extra jobs beyond his official duties. 

Thunstrom makes another point:  Whatever may have occurred in Floyd’s past, the man he worked with in Minneapolis caused no problems. “I don’t even like talking about that,” says Thunstrom. “He didn’t even want to take a drink, have a beer at the end of the night.” 

Floyd seemed happy to be at Conga. “He liked the Latino people, food, music, and culture,” Thunstrom says. 

He loved eating the Conga nachos and was drawn to try and dance. He had “two left feet,” Thunstrom says. “I’d say, ‘George! Stop that! You’re making people laugh!’” 

Dawn Maria, a local dance fixture, model, and club regular, says she, too, remembers Floyd wanting to learn bachata. But he was apparently too tall to do the turns. When her dance team performed at the club, she says, Floyd waited patiently to get a photo with the ladies, and even asked for their autographs. 

“He was so excited. His smile lit up the room; he was calling us angels,” she says. 

Maria (which is her middle name) also works as a counselor and said through tears that he had a “beautiful, joyful, positive energy.”

Danielle Booth and her boyfriend, Ami Soto Cruz, are devout bachata and salsa dancers who have long frequented Conga three times a week. She says as a result, she got at least “365 hugs a year from George.”

“He protected us, protected me, always,” Booth says. “He looked out for us, always.” 

She, too, remarks on the difference between Floyd’s stature and his personality. She recalls watching him carry racks of glassware, stacked three high, through the crowd, the tower of glass nearly touching the ceiling. It was comical, she said, watching him try to crouch down low enough to get under the bar. “He was massive, but always so chill and even-keel with his mood. He was always calm.” 

Booth says she feels particularly devastated because she runs her catering business, Fresco’s Foods, just across the street from Cup Foods. She wishes she’d known what was unfolding that night in the neighborhood.

“I would have taken a bullet for him,” she says. “I struggle with why somebody didn’t do something. He wasn’t resisting.” 

In fact, Floyd was known by the security team as the Negotiator. 

If trouble seemed to be stirring in the club—a scuffle or harassment—Floyd was the guy the whole team wanted on duty. He could almost always talk it out rather than use force. 

Cintya Canales, a Conga bartender and a friend of Floyd, describes him as “the sweetest person ever.” And though most of Conga’s customers are Spanish speaking, Floyd managed to handle conflicts through his words and calm presence. 

In the most heated situations, Booth says, Floyd could usually just pick up the offending person and put them down outside. 

“He’d say, ‘Let’s talk this out,’ even though he was African American”—that is to say, he spoke only English. She said their conversations usually centered on chasing the American dream.

This irony is what bothers Michael the most. Floyd, a natural peacemaker, would never have approached a situation the way the Minneapolis police did the night they murdered him. 

In the powerful memorial service that took place at North Central University, in Minneapolis, Floyd’s family spoke of some of their favorite memories of him. They mentioned grilled cheese and banana-mayonnaise sandwiches. And in the same mouthful, they spoke of never having a lot of money. They were raised instead on love: Their mother took in an extended family of neighborhood children while raising her own kids and grandkids. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when he relocated to Minneapolis, Floyd adopted some of our city’s most unpretentious—yet best—eating places as his regular hangs. 

One of those spots was the shuttered Trinidadian eating institution Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine, in south Minneapolis. Its owner, Marla Singh Jadoonanan—Marla to those who know her, and “Ma” to true regulars—remembers Floyd as many do: huge, gentle in voice and spirit, deferential and respectful. She says he loved her jerk chicken, the fried plantains, and the “doubles.” (This is a spicy chickpea-filled fried fritter and a popular street food in Trinidad, Marla’s home island.) 

“He always came back to the window to say, ‘Thank you, Ma. Thank you for this food.’” 

She’s especially disturbed that the killing took place on a corner she knows so well. 

“It’s as though it happened in my home,” she said, recalling how her kids used to walk up to Cup Foods for their snacks while she cooked at the restaurant. 

Floyd, his friends say, felt the same affection for his adopted hometown.

“He always said, ‘If you want to make it anywhere, come up here,’” Booth, the Conga regular and Floyd’s friend, remembers. “‘They’ll pay you well, they’ll treat you good.’”

Floyd slid easily into the community. His girlfriend, Courtney Ross, graduated high school with Kris Singh—nephew to Marla and heir to the Caribbean Heat hot sauce company that his father, Joe Singh, founded 39 years ago. The couple were big fans of the hot sauces, and since the Singhs were vendors to Conga, Singh often ran into Floyd. 

“He would always say, ‘I love this hot sauce, man, it makes me sweat! I gotta keep eating it!’” Singh recalls. 

The Singhs have earned a reputation as the kind of tight-knit community-based business that treats its regulars like family. “If you don’t have money, just come down. We’ll take care of you— just remember us down the line,” Singh says. Floyd embodied that spirit, too.

“He changed his life. He was a big, caring guy. He cared about others and made sure others were taken care of.” 

Seeing the destruction in their shared neighborhood would have saddened Floyd, his friend Michael says. 

Booth shares that view. But, she says, he wouldn’t have shown anger. “He would put his head down and shake it, like, ‘Why?’” While his friends and colleagues are grateful for the memories of their big, big-hearted friend, they return to a point Reverend Al Sharpton made in his homily: Floyd should not be among the deceased. 

As Thunstrom puts it, Floyd came to our state for a better life, and he ended up unjustly killed. 

In high school, Floyd had talked about “touching the world.” However, “If you were to ask my friend if he would want to die, even if it changed the world, he would not have wanted to die,” his friend Michael says.

“He loved his life.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.