WASHINGTON — After watching his big brother’s death on video, after mourning him at multiple memorials, after grieving in front of the world at a funeral that lasted more than four hours on Tuesday afternoon and then seeing him laid to rest, Philonise Floyd flew to Washington, D.C., to testify on Capitol Hill. He walked into a political chasm: Wednesday morning’s hearing on policing practices and racial profiling. How is he even still standing?
In the opening hour of the hearing, Floyd was allotted five minutes to speak about his older brother George Floyd, who died while held down by police officers in Minneapolis. But it may be that what was communicated in his silences, what came through in the absences as he sat alone behind his individual witness desk, will endure.
He arrived at the hearing wearing a loosefitting dove gray suit and open-collar white shirt. Its lightness was reminiscent of the white suit he’d worn the day before. His black mask bore a picture of his brother, the image that’s become so familiar to the public: George Floyd looks straight on; his eyes are alert and curious, but his expression is inscrutable. The picture on the mask is captioned, “I can’t breathe,” which were among George Floyd’s last words.
Philonise Floyd isn’t wearing a tie. He hasn’t been wearing one these past few days because he hasn’t been able to shake George’s dying lament. “When he yelled, ‘Please, please, I can’t breathe,’ I stopped wearing ties. I didn’t want to wear a tie no more because I wanted to be able to breathe,” Floyd said at the Houston funeral. “I went to memorials — no tie. I could have had one on. But right now, I want justice for my brother — my big brother.”
Floyd may still struggle to breathe free, but as he sat facing the members of the House Judiciary Committee, he didn’t struggle to make himself heard. He was the first of many witnesses, many of whom spoke remotely. But Floyd was there in person, bringing the full weight of his humanity into the room. He described how his brother called the police officers “sir” even as he begged for his life. Floyd didn’t wade into debate over “defunding the police.” He simply asked lawmakers to “teach [police] what it means to treat people with empathy and respect.”
“He didn’t deserve to die over $20,” Floyd said of his brother, who was initially stopped because a merchant had accused him of circulating a counterfeit bill. “I’m asking you: Is that what a black man is worth?”
The room was quiet and sparsely populated, thanks to social distancing, as the lawmakers took his words in. The committee’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., presided, keeping everyone to their limited time and asking that all witnesses and members wear a mask, except for those moments when they were speaking.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ignored that request, and as usual wasn’t wearing a suit jacket. He has said that he wears one when he’s concerned about being respectful, but that a jacket encumbers his political pugilism. Jordan brought brief words of condolence and a fighting stance. After his expression of sympathy for the Floyd family, he quickly turned his attention to the property damage seen during the recent protests. And then he praised President Donald Trump’s leadership in front of a man who had barely been able to get in a word of his own when the president called him to offer his condolence.
Floyd’s remarks were succinct and focused. But there were moments when he paused and his hand swept across his bald head as if he was trying to wipe away the stress. One hand quietly pounded into the other for emphasis — such a gentle gesture for a time of ferocious emotions. Floyd was not there to pound on tables or to yell in fury. Perhaps he was simply too exhausted. Or perhaps he knew that even now, a righteously angry black man is still, in the eyes of many, just a dangerous man.
In the quiet between Floyd’s words, it was possible to hear his sniffles. This man with the broad shoulders lost his big brother, the man he said he looked up to. And he had been tasked with stepping into the role of the family leader, its strength. He would bear up.
The lawyers talked on and on, and so did the researchers. The Republicans peered over their reading glasses and defended police officers and described the bad ones as having gone rogue. They painted a picture of a country without policing as a country destroyed. The Democrats lamented the devaluing of black lives and systemic racism. They championed their desire for better policing, not the absence of it.
The nation’s representatives were yielding and politicking and talking — not to each other, but into the hearing’s official record.
Late in the afternoon, Floyd was still listening. He removed his mask to respond to their queries in his calm but forceful way. He shook his head in anguish. He blinked hard until he couldn’t hold back the tears and he wiped his eyes with his broad, open hand.
The hearing continued. And Floyd slipped his mask back on, the one that reminded the room that he was still struggling to breathe.