Protesters demonstrate against the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after being pinned down by police, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The fatal arrest of George Floyd, a black man kneed in the neck by police, explained

His cries of “I can’t breathe” are eerily reminiscent of Eric Garner’s.


A black man in Minneapolis died on Monday after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by law enforcement, which has led to the firing of four police officers.

The death of George Floyd, 46, was captured on video and was later widely shared on social media. In the footage, an officer pins Floyd’s neck to the ground as Floyd is begging, “Please, I can’t breathe” — a moment that closely resembles the pleas of Eric Garner, a black man who died from an officer’s chokehold in 2014. Another police officer watches the scene unfold as bystanders voice their concerns for Floyd. One person comments that Floyd has a bloody nose while another yells, “Bro, you’ve got him down, let him breathe at least, man.”

Toward the end of the video, Floyd turns silent and is motionless as his head remains shoved against the pavement. Shortly after, he was pronounced dead at Hennepin County Medical Center, according to the New York Times.

“They treated him worse than they treat animals,” Philonise Floyd, George’s brother, told the Times. “They took a life — they deserve life.”

Although the video doesn’t capture the moments leading to the arrest, the Minneapolis Police Department said they were responding to a call that a man was trying to use a $20 counterfeit bill, according to the Star Tribune. In a statement, the police department said officers arrived at the scene to find Floyd — who matched the description of the suspect — sitting on a car and appearing to be intoxicated. They added that Floyd physically resisted the police and seemed to be “suffering medical distress,” which is why they had called for an ambulance.

The police’s excessive use of force seemingly has no excuse: The department does not permit the technique that was used to pin Floyd’s head to the ground, according to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Four officers involved in the case were fired by Tuesday afternoon, and the FBI has now opened a civil rights investigation on the incident.

In response to Floyd’s death, hundreds of protesters poured into the streets on Tuesday. As they walked about 2 miles to a Minneapolis police precinct, they held signs such as “I can’t breathe” and “Jail killer KKKops,” according to the Associated Press. Police dressed in riot gear clashed with the protesters and fired tear gas — a stark contrast to the stay-at-home protests in the state last month where police presence was minimal.

“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Frey told the Star Tribune. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes. When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense.”

The history of police brutality against the black community is long and repetitive

The black community is far too familiar with the police brutality that led to Floyd’s death; there is no shortage of stories about law enforcement killing black people who are often unarmed. Although they make up about 13 percent of the population, black people accounted for 23 percent of the people killed by law enforcement in 2019, according to a Washington Post database.

Over the past seven years, there has been growing attention paid to police brutality, due to several high-profile cases: Trayvon Martin, 17, was unarmed when he was shot in 2013 after being reported as “suspicious” for simply visiting his dad’s fiancee, who lived in a gated community. In the wake of his death came Black Lives Matter, a movement against the systematic violence and discrimination against the black population.

Protests continued as more black men continued to die at the hands of the police in 2014. Eric Garner — whose case closely resembles that of Floyd — said “I can’t breathe” 11 times as NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold after a confrontation over untaxed cigarettes. A month later, the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sparked mass protests in Ferguson. And in November, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with his toy pellet gun when he was shot dead seconds after officer Timothy Loehmann stepped out of his squad car.

Even in the past month, the black community has mourned the death of two people killed by both former and current law enforcement officials. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was chased and killed in Georgia by a former police detective and his son; it wasn’t until after a graphic video documenting the shooting went viral this month that the men were arrested. And in March, Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Kentucky, was fatally shot in her own apartment by police officers for an investigation that she wasn’t even involved in. Like Arbery, her case didn’t gain national recognition until recently.

In the Floyd case, the officers were promptly fired, which is rare in police-involved shootings. Repercussions were swift partially because of a 2016 “duty to intervene” policy, which was implemented about nine months after the shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man. The rule requires officers to stop their colleagues from excessive use of force if they are present at the scene; failure to do so could lead to serious repercussions.

And yet Floyd’s death shows how black people are subjected to excessive violence even when such laws exist. The countless deaths of black men and women is a form of “genocide,” according to Benjamin Crump — a civil rights lawyer who has taken on the cases of Martin, Brown, Rice, Arbery, and Taylor and will now represent Floyd’s family as well — and the killing of Floyd follows the same pattern of systematic racism.

“How many ‘while black’ deaths will it take until the racial profiling and undervaluing of black lives by police finally ends?” Crump wrote in a statement on Floyd’s death.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.