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May 26, 2022, 9:12 a.m. EDT

George Floyd’s family says his iconic selfie ‘symbolizes who he was’ — and helped shape the racial-justice narrative

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By Charles Passy

It’s an image of a man in thoughtful repose, looking down at the camera as he stands in front of a brick wall. In short, a selfie that seems designed not to call too much attention to itself.

And yet, it’s the picture that some say may have played an important role in the fight for racial justice.

This is, of course, the now iconic photo of George Floyd — arguably the most widely distributed image of the man whose May 25, 2020 murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked a wave of protests throughout the country. The killing, coming just months after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, also seemed to be a tipping point in the renewed calls for police reform and racial equality.

Soon after Floyd’s death, the photo was seen everywhere, in news reports and on T-shirts alike. It also became the basis for countless works of art, including murals and digital representations . It was even discussed during Chauvin’s murder trial — the police officer was found guilty and is now serving a 22 1/2-year prison sentence — when Courteney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend, referred to it as a “dad selfie,” noting that many dads don’t take pictures at the best angles.

Now, two years after that day in Minneapolis, it’s worth considering the role the photo played in how the public perceived Floyd, who was 46 years old at the time of his murder. To put the picture in context, MarketWatch spoke with members of the Floyd family, plus Ross, as well as a number of social-justice and other experts.

Ben Crump, the civil-rights attorney who has represented the Floyd family and helped them win a $27 million wrongful-death settlement with the city of Minneapolis, described the photo as a “positive image” in a world still filled with too many negative portrayals of Black men. In turn, Crump said, it “helped shape the narrative in our fight” for justice.

“I think images matter,” Crump said.

Floyd’s story is also the story of a video — specifically, the one taken by Darnella Frazier, a teenager who captured the nine-minute scene of Chauvin continuing to press his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd begged for his life. It became a critical piece of evidence in showing the world what happened after Floyd was arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.

“The video was the thing that people will always remember,” said Philonise Floyd, one of George’s brothers. Philonise and his wife, Keeta, now run an institute for social change that advocates for criminal-justice reform.

But to hear some tell it, the video and photo go hand in hand: The former is critical evidence, but the latter tells us who George Floyd really was. As Crump suggests, it humanizes him in a way that makes it all the more difficult to grapple with what we see on the video.

Family members and Ross aren’t entirely sure of the photo’s origins or how it was so quickly disseminated. Ross said she believes it was taken sometime around 2017 in front of the Minneapolis Salvation Army location where Floyd worked for a period, noting that she recognizes the brick wall. She added that she’s certain Floyd posted it on an Instagram page he maintained, but isn’t sure if that’s where others found it.

Brandon Williams, a nephew of Floyd’s, echoes some of Ross’s account. He, too, can’t say how the image became discovered, other than to point to the most likely scenario: “Most of his photos [on social media] were just grabbed and people started sharing.”

In either case, Williams said the photo — and the look of contentment on his uncle’s face — are vintage Floyd. “It symbolizes who he was. … He was a very happy person.” He and other family members describe a man who couldn’t resist kidding around, whether it was in the way he playfully pinched children’s cheeks or said phrases in an intentionally funny manner.

Angela Harrelson, an aunt of Floyd’s who lives in Minneapolis and has written a recent book, “Lift Your Voice: How My Nephew George Floyd’s Murder Changed the World,” said she sees a “quiet confidence” in her nephew’s expression in the picture.

“It’s like [he’s saying], ‘I’m here. Things are all right,’” Harrelson said.

Ross noted Floyd had likely had one of his regular haircuts before he shot the photo. “Floyd stayed sharp,” she said.

She also sees in the image Floyd’s humble, gentle nature, which she said contrasted with his towering frame. She explained that he was the kind of guy who could have opted to use his build and height — he stood well above 6 feet — to intimidate people, but never did.

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