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Houston, George Floyd's Hometown, Tries To Make Sense Of His Killing


This is the city where George Floyd will be laid to rest this week. He was the black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. There have been nationwide protests over his death and others, calls for justice and an end to police brutality against black people. Houston was Floyd's hometown. He lived here until he moved to Minneapolis some years ago. And Jen Rice reports here for Houston Public Media and is with us this morning. Thanks for being here, Jen.

JEN RICE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us how this city is remembering George Floyd.

RICE: So there have been days of protests here. Probably the biggest one of all was this massive march last Tuesday. There were tens of thousands of people. Floyd's family members were there. The mayor, the police chief marched. It was organized by rappers Bun B and Trae tha Truth. And it was a really emotional day for everybody there. Today's the public viewing, and tomorrow's the funeral.

GREENE: OK. So his name will be coming up a lot both here in Houston and around the country as he's laid to rest here. And, you know, of course, his killing has also sparked this huge national conversation around policing. And I just wonder, what do those conversations sound like here in this city?

RICE: So in Houston, the police force is really pretty diverse. But community members say transparency and accountability are big problems here. HPD recently had six fatal police shootings in five weeks, and they've not released those videos yet. And people in the community are demanding to see the videos. This is protester David Daniels (ph). He told me about the most urgent changes he wants to see.

DAVID DANIELS: No police officer in the city of Houston should be on the streets without their bodycam working. That's what I want to make sure that they mention up there today. When I go to work, there's a checklist. You've got to have your uniform. You got to have all your required items. If your bodycam does not work, you don't need to work - simple as that.

RICE: So there's been that pressure on the police force to be more open and release bodycam videos. But in response to those critics, over the weekend, the mayor and the police chief held a press conference, maybe kind of a PR thing, with some family members who said they don't want videos released of their loved ones being killed. So there are those lingering questions about HPD. And at the same time, Houston City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the city's 2021 budget. I spoke with Ashton Woods this weekend, the founder of Houston Black Lives Matter. He says he'd like to see some cuts. The police department shouldn't have an almost $1 billion police budget, according to him. The mayor and city council members are all supporting an increase, though, that looks likely to pass. They say HPD needs more accountability but not less funding. The mayor is going to speak at Floyd's funeral on Tuesday, and it looks like he's going to increase the HPD budget on Wednesday.

GREENE: Well, this is extraordinary, I mean, because in cities like Minneapolis and other communities, I mean, people are calling, you know, to defund the police, to dismantle police departments. Here, there's actually talk of the budget going up.

RICE: Yeah. I do think Houston's kind of an outlier in terms of that national conversation. It does sound different here. I know the police union is strong. For instance, these are contractually mandated salary increases. The city could make other cuts to the department to offset the increase, which they've tried to do to firefighters in the past. But I haven't heard anything about that conversation coming up this week.

GREENE: I mean, police forces across the country have confronted protesters, as we've seen, in in very different ways depending on where you are. What has that been like in Houston?

RICE: So Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been marching with protesters, talking about making changes, but we're watching closely to see if his actions match what he's saying. On the one hand, he's made public commitments that officers will not use tear gas or rubber bullets on protesters, but they did do three days of mass arrests within a week.

GREENE: That is Jen Rice - she reports for Houston Public Media - talking to us this morning here in Houston. Jen, thank you so much.

RICE: Thank you.

GREENE: Now, the reason we are here in Houston is to learn about George Floyd's life, who he was, what he meant to people. And this is one person who knew him.

P T NGWOLO: All right, y'all, we're going to circle up. We're going to circle up.

GREENE: Pastor Patrick "P.T." Ngwolo was holding an outdoor church service yesterday morning in Houston's historically black Third Ward neighborhood. That is where George Floyd grew up.

NGWOLO: God, we troubled, lord, the death of our brother, God, that's reverberated around the world. And so, lord, we come, God, just wanting to voice our grief and our anger but also, God, wanting to hear hope from you.

GREENE: So a couple dozen people were gathered around the pastor on a basketball court. It's right in the center of a public housing project that residents fondly call the bricks. They're two-story, red-brick apartment buildings. Floyd spent a lot of time here playing basketball, meeting friends, also encouraging neighbors to seek guidance through God. Often he would be the one to set up tubs for community baptisms.

NGWOLO: In order for us to, like, do church, he would bring chairs out here and put baptism tubs out - man, just things that, man, you know, even at that age, I didn't want to move no tub by myself. I usually put it on the little - a dolly and move it. But...

GREENE: He would carry the tub out here to the basketball court.

NGWOLO: Yeah, man. That dude was strong, man. Floyd is - yeah, he's a phenom.

GREENE: Floyd was fiercely protective of this community, people told us. They looked up to him for guidance about who could be trusted. The pastor was seen as an outsider before Big Floyd, as everyone called him here, brought him in.

NGWOLO: He was instrumental in making sure that we were safe. Usually, if you're not from these square walls, you can't enter the bricks. I'm not from here. I'm not a brick boy. And so in order for you to have a stamp of approval, you need somebody to embrace you - OGs, if you will, to embrace you and say, hey, they good. They not coming here to make trouble. They not going to stop whatever you're doing. They're good with us. And so that was the kind of stamp that he gave us because he's loved, admired, as you can see, respected by the people in this neighborhood.

GREENE: Floyd is remembered here as someone who was on a path wanting change for himself and also for others. And that's why they say they want to fight for that now. And I should say, people here have already been moved to action. After the church service ended here yesterday morning, some of Floyd's friends were setting up tables on that very same basketball court, and they were about to register voters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jen Rice