George Floyd: Multiple Perspectives from a “Dangerous” Black Ex-Con
I don’t want to write this.
But I feel strongly that it is important for me to write this.
I publish a weekly article on topics related to fitness, nutrition, health, and wellness. Those are things I enjoy and that I occupy my time pursuing and improving.
Reflecting on slow brutal murders and systemic racism is something I try to avoid doing. But as I have lost a lot of sleep and productivity this last week doing exactly that, I decided I had to write this to you.
Where My Unique Perspective Comes From
I am an American citizen, even though I no longer call America my home. After 30 years of life there, exhausted by systemic racism, I decided it was time to go.
But America is still close to my heart. I have friends and family there. I go back to visit. And what happens there, and to my friends, family, and other citizens, will always matter to me.
And despite no longer living in the US, the systemic racism still affects me — and is a problem that all Americans have to deal with, regardless of where they live, and if they are Black, White, Brown, Yellow, or Green.
The current protests and riots have hopefully made that clear to you.
Of the 7.5 billion people on this planet we Americans are a relatively small group of 330 million people.
In addition to being American, I was also born a male (about 50% of the population — 165 million) and Black (13.5% of 165 million is 22 million).
Which means I could have been George Floyd.
Or Ahmaud Arbery. Or Eric Garner. Or Michael Brown. Or Laquan McDonald. Or Tamir Rice. Or Freddie Gray.
While all of those 22 million black men have experienced racism (and worse) over their lives, I am part of the subset who has also been to prison. Which means I have been arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned, losing my freedom and at times, personhood.
According to statistics from the US Department of Justice, being a black male means about a 25% chance of going to prison. Making me one of about 5.5 million people, just like George Floyd.
But I believe that it is my unusual post-incarceration experience that might even make me one of a kind.
After I was released from prison I became a personal trainer. One of my early clients was actually (and still is) a member of the Baltimore Police Department SWAT division. He eventually became a good and trusted friend, and our interaction led to opportunities to work with the Police Department, specifically helping develop physical fitness testing, nutrition, and training protocols to help keep officers safe.
Until of course I left the United States to build a home for myself in Israel. But even across an ocean and 7 time zones that officer is still one of my best friends. We stay in contact over WhatsApp and when I visit America we make the time to grab a beer and catch up.
Before we go on to how I feel about George Floyd, and how we can move the country to a better reality, I should address why I moved.
The short answer: Systemic Racism.
Why I Moved
In 2012 I was sent from a Federal Correctional Institute to a halfway house in Baltimore to finish a 30 month sentence for unlicensed dealing of firearms and distribution of oxycodone. Despite having no college degree, no certifications, and no experience, I managed to get a job at a gym working as a personal trainer.
It is relevant to note that finding employment as a black man with a criminal record is very difficult. Or really, close to impossible.
Once you mark that box [previous conviction] on your application, you are generally thrown out of the pile of applicants. Especially with charges like the ones I was convicted of.
But I persevered and eventually got lucky and found a gym that did hire me. After 3 job interviews, I was never actually asked what my crime was, even though I had indicated alongside the check “Will explain at interview.” No one asked, so I didn’t explain.
What I suspect happened was that the first interview was a group interview, led by a black male and he didn’t want to embarrass me by asking. Then at the following interviews everyone thought that someone had already covered the topic.
Ultimately I was hired, and I worked there for over 3 years, even earning a promotion and several awards. My background was never an issue, until I put in my 2 weeks’ notice and was fired on the spot. I had never seen this policy implemented on anyone in my time there, and have never heard of it being implemented since.
You don’t need to feel bad for me: I have never had the expectation of receiving fair and equal treatment. That is just not part of life as a black man in America.
But I have digressed because my move had nothing to do with that workplace. It had to do with our university system which is known for being supposedly liberal, open and progressive.
You see, a large part of my success as a personal trainer was due to my abilities and aptitude for pain management and injury rehabilitation. Eventually my colleagues, clients, and the physical therapists I worked with closely convinced me to pursue a career in physical therapy.
It is very difficult to become a physical therapist. The schooling alone — a 3 year doctoral program — requires a bachelor degree, and very difficult prerequisites such as Anatomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Statistics, etc.
And most schools choose 20–30 applicants from a pool of 200–600 applications.
At the time I made the decision to pursue this path, I had no degree, and a criminal record. But I was foolish enough to try.
My logic was as follows. If I could work full-time as a personal trainer specializing in pain management and injury rehab, while attending college full-time and earning straight A’s, and still keeping up with my volunteer work in the community, I would stand out as the best candidate, despite having a criminal record.
I executed the plan. And also opened my own personal training studio ending up doing the work with the police force I mentioned earlier.
My fitness, health, and personal relationships suffered. But I was determined to succeed, despite knowing that I would be judged in one of two ways–
As a dangerous black man.
Or, as the best candidate ever, based on unequivocally outstanding qualifications.
Even having checked the box on my applications, as I entered my final semester of undergraduate courses I received acceptance into two of the top 10 physical therapy schools in the country, the University of Southern California and the University of Florida.
I will never forget my trip to the University of Florida. I had a long meeting with the director of the program. I told him about my plan of changing the medical model. How the current paradigm of prescribing prescription pills (of which I was convicted of selling) was failing people. That instead we needed to shift to treating pain through movement and nutrition in a more holistic way. While drugs are sometimes a good short-term solution, I had already seen and helped people become pain-free by using their bodies instead of taking drugs.
He assured me that physical therapy was the right career for me and the University of Florida was the right place to pursue this career and life goal.
I sent a letter to the University of Southern California declining their offer. And I sent one to the University of Florida accepting their offer.
The next step was to finish out my undergraduate degree, close my business, and move my life to Gainesville. Once I was there I would still have to prove I was the best; I knew getting licensure with a criminal record would also be a fight. But the stress of the first big step was over.
But you shouldn’t forget. I am still a dangerous black man. Whether I appear to have reformed myself and am working like a slave to prove it, or am handcuffed on the ground with a knee on my neck — the pressure doesn’t stop. I am a threat until I am dead and gone.
A few weeks later I started getting odd requests from my future school. Things like verification of my name and date of birth, and letters of reference. Things I had already submitted on my application. Initially I just gave the information and didn’t think twice. But after they requested a personal statement I called them to figure out what was going on.
Initially they told me they just needed to “complete my file,” but after multiple phone calls and some pushing someone finally told me the “truth.”
They explained that I had only been admitted to the graduate program to study physical therapy. Admission to the “University” was automatic for anyone admitted to a graduate program, unless the applicant had a criminal record. Then a separate application to the University was required as well, which would be reviewed by Student Conduct and Affairs. I was told I would be informed of their decision in a few weeks.
Let me remind you again that more than 25% of black men will end up in prison. As will 16% of Hispanic males. I often wonder how we expect those who end up wearing this scarlet letter to become functioning members of society, while constantly denying them opportunities to improve themselves.
I brought up the fact that the acceptance letter listed the contingencies of my acceptance, such as finishing my degree and the prerequisites with acceptable grades. There was nothing about the “additional requirements” due to my criminal history.
But I was told that this is the policy. There was nothing I could do.
After consulting with some friends who were lawyers it seemed ridiculous to all of them that I could be currently attending one public university, getting straight A’s and having no disciplinary problems and then be denied entry to another public university, after being accepted into their graduate program. Especially with my reference letters from religious leaders, a city judge, and an active police officer, all highly esteemed people in Baltimore.
But I guess knowing me for who I am as a person can obscure the fact that I am and will always be a dangerous black man.
After three of the most stressful months of my life — even more stressful than my time in prison — I was rejected admission. At least when I was incarcerated there was a release date. Not just waiting, every day, for something promised months prior and praying for an answer. And this time, I had the extra stress of maintaining my A’s and being the best trainer for my clients.
The bottom of the rejection letter reads “The Foundation for the Gator Nation: An Equal Opportunity Institution.”
Apart from my disappointment and the anguish I was put through, I was also so frustrated by the University of Florida’s hypocrisy. Year after year, the school looks past student athletes with criminal activity— often covering up their repeat offenses for them — to play sports at the top collegiate level. These student athletes make money for the school, so the university “overlooks” their criminal behavior, even insuring cover-ups to allow their continued “study.” But in my case, my criminal past disqualified me from being admitted, despite my outstanding academic record and likelihood of being successful there.
After they had dragged out the decision well past the point I could attempt to get back into the University of California, and hidden the additional application process, and refused to give me any information, all while constantly sending me reminders of deadlines that I couldn’t meet because admissions wouldn’t add me to the system, it was clear that they didn’t want me and didn’t care about me and I had no hope of a successful appeal.
The right thing to do would have been to file a lawsuit and attempt to force my way into the institution — for the sake of justice.
But a funny thing happened during those three months of waiting. I realized I have a very supportive community in Baltimore. And after hearing about my situation many friends tried to help, doing things like reaching out to the media, to force them to answer me in a reasonable time. So I would have been able to move on with my life instead of waiting for a response about a future to which I had already been promised entry.
All their hard work resulted in…
I had a realization about the current state of America.
Black Lives Matter is a misleading slogan.
A more accurate one would be…
Black Deaths Matter.
Because only then does the media start caring about us. That is when the protests start. That is when you stand up and start fighting.
I don’t want to die to matter. I want to live. And I want to live to my fullest potential.
I can run away from America, but not from the fight. Again, I am back in limbo, this time where another institution (in this case the government) is ignoring deadlines, refusing to communicate, and providing no information as to when (or if) I will receive an answer concerning my Israeli citizenship.
But that is another story for another day. I can complain, I can fight, I can beg for air. But the pressure never stops.
Here, though, at least I have gotten to experience things I never imagined.
Like walking down an urban street at night and the woman coming toward me alone doesn’t cross the street to avoid me.
And mall security waving me through the metal detector and not being concerned it beeped.
Even being pulled over by police officers without fearing for my life.
A Moment of Caring
In 2015 Baltimore City erupted into protest and violent riots over the murder of Freddie Gray.
Much like what is happening in many cities across America right now, the National Guard was called in, a curfew was imposed, and large parts of the city were looted and burned.
There were of course peaceful protests as well — but like a reformed criminal that is much less news worthy in our current environment.
In the “nice” areas, to show their support, white people broke the curfew to highlight the fact that it simply wasn’t enforced in their neighborhoods.
My friend, the white police officer, called to see if I was ok and to tell me that no matter what I should not break the curfew. No matter what anyone else was doing.
I told him not to worry. I was sleeping on the floor of my brother’s dorm room outside of city limits.
I was trying to live. To reach my full potential. To breathe.
He probably doesn’t even remember the phone call. I’m sure it was insignificant for him.
But I will never forget it. Because I knew that someone on the police force cared about me.
He was also one of the references who wrote letters for both my original physical therapy school application and the “additional” one.
It is reassuring to know that someone cares for me as an individual. And sees me as a person regardless of my skin color.
A Question That No One is Asking
From the accounts I have read on the news in the moments leading up to his murder, George Floyd was “awfully drunk” and “not in control of himself” sitting in the seat of a car with two other people, around the corner from a store where he had just been accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill at 8 pm on a Monday.
Nothing he could have done justified being slowly choked to death, while being held on the ground, while handcuffed and begging for his life.
That is not law. That is not order. That is a police officer who has sworn to protect and serve his community holding “court in the streets” and acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
But what happened to George on May 25th? On May 24th? What was going on in his life?
He needed help. He had just lost his job as a bouncer because of the COVID-19 lockdown, just a few years after he had moved to Minneapolis to start a new life.
Could we have built a society where he could have gotten help and support at any point in his life instead of one where pressure was constantly applied on him because of the color of his skin?
You can’t imagine how hard it is to find a job and get help being a dangerous black man with a criminal record in America. The doors are locked shut and a very few of us are lucky enough to force them open, but only with an ungodly amount of hard work.
If the spread of the cornonavirus had happened in 2014, I would have found myself in a similar position to George Floyd.
Being a black man in America, it is easy to feel alone and hopeless, like no one cares.
Like your only options are athlete, entertainer…or menace to society.
We want to breathe. We want to matter. We want society to want us to succeed. We want you to care about us.
Not to hold up a few successes and say if we work hard enough we can be President of the United States. Not to protest or riot in the streets after we are dead and gone.
We want you to stop acting afraid of us and constantly applying pressure.
Give us some air. Care.
And help us live instead of waiting for us to die.
Response from my cop friend:
Amazing. Well said my friend.
I remember how it all played out over the years, but when you read it all at once — it’s disgusting. And aggravating. The religious part of your brain probably thinks “It’s all part of God’s plan…” But me…I find it disgusting.
I can’t help but be selfish and think of how our program, as well as other people, could have benefitted by your being able to enroll and succeed at your PT objective.
And I do remember that curfew phone call. I genuinely feared you walking home on Fort Ave by yourself.
So the almost cliched coincidence, or is it irony, starts with me waking up with a stiff lower back (crappy hotel mattress) and minutes later reading your article while stretching my hip flexor — one knee bent, the other on the floor while pushing my hips forward. Still works!!
That was the genesis of our friendship — my lower back issues. And if you remember, my objective was to be a strong, healthy and active dad for my kids. Check that box.
So as I’m reading and remembering the level of frustration I felt then by the stupidity and injustice of the University of Florida, my back is loosening and I switch knees. And again I feel frustrated because of how this whole thing has played out. You’re in Israel now. But you’re also happy and have a beautiful family. Another box checked.
I switch knees again and realize this is the very position that started this latest chapter.
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