Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015, and is being reprinted because of its relevancy to the ongoing crisis of violence, institutional racism and economic inequality in the United States.
An Officer and Gentleman on Institutional Racism in America
By Max Eternity
“That’s the culture of the Police Department in Ferguson…to treat black people with an iron fist”
Stg. Gregory Floyd, Retired US Marine One Crew Chief, Police Officer, Fireman and Paramedic
“Residents of cities across the country must rise up and reclaim their police departments”
Norm Stamper, Former Chief of Police, City of Seattle
What happens when the police oath to “Serve and Protect” citizens morphs into an authoritarian demand to “Obey or Die”? And in an age referred to as post-racial America, why are there so many stories illustrating how the lives of America’s most vulnerable youth, and its adults, are precariously put at risk—resulting too often with the poor and voiceless in this nation finding themselves treated as political fodder for well-paid talking heads, all the while a roll call of dead black bodies lie in America’s blood-soaked streets, from Missouri to California to New York, riddled with bullets from America’s finest, the police?
Illustrating this reality, US Representative for California, Barbara Lee, wrote this weekend in an editorial for the Oakland Tribune, saying in part that:
We are rightly outraged by the killing of unarmed young black men, weapons of war on our streets, and a criminal justice system that routinely fails our community. Parents in communities of color bear a terrible burden.
As the mother of two black men and grandmother of two black boys, I have had many painful but necessary conversations about how to behave and interact with law enforcement. No mother or grandmother should have to have these conversations, but they are necessary because black and brown children do not get the benefit of the doubt.
Recognizing America’s dystopia of justice, which he knows from a civilian, military and police person’s perspective, Greg Floyd says that “Law enforcement shouldn’t get a punt just because they’re law enforcement.” When asked if there is a racial element to this, Floyd says “it’s absolutely a racial overtone to this,” and saying as well, that “what you’re seeing is that just the mere fact they [police] are law enforcement, they’re justified in these killings.”
On December 24, 2014, Reuters published an article entitled “Off duty, black cops in New York feel threat from fellow police.” In part the article stated that:
Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.
The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.
Via email—in preparation for this article—Floyd was asked what he thought of this, and in reply he said “How ironic, I have had almost all of this done to me when I was off duty.”
An African-American who grew up in the Southeast, Floyd is a retired police officer who served in that capacity for 16 years.
Floyd has been in public service for all of his adult life, including time served as a paramedic, a fireman and as a Marine helicopter mechanic and sergeant. Humble in character—dignity and grace—Floyd epitomizes the quintessential southern gentleman.
During his Marine tenure, Floyd was the Crew Chief for Marine One—the US presidential helicopter—for 4 years, flying President Reagan. It is a distinction which he holds as the first African-American to occupy that position.
CORRECTION: Sgt. Floyd was the first African-American to achieve Airman of the Year while in the Marine Corps. He was not the first African-American Crew Chief for Marine One.
What follows is a January  phone interview with Floyd, in which he talks about the trials and triumphs of his long and distinguished career in public service, in the face of America’s ongoing challenge of racial adversity.
Max Eternity: When we were talking earlier, you spoke about your life in Alabama, living on your great-grandmothers farm on the outskirts of Evergreen. You then moved to Georgia with your mother to a suburb of Atlanta, called Marietta. Tell me about your teenage years there.
Sargent Greg Floyd: That’s right…growing up in Alabama in the 60’s was rough, because you had the racial tension going on.
Eternity: So you became aware of racism at a very early age?
Sgt. Floyd: Yes sir, you know 2 worlds at a very early age—a black and white world. Black people worked for white people—that’s the way life was in Alabama. Poor growing up, you worked for the sharecroppers. That’s what we were. You worked for the white man…harvesting his farm for him. That’s how we made money, including [picking] cotton.
Eternity: So some years later you leave your great-grandmother’s farm, and you’re in Georgia, in Marietta?
Sgt. Floyd: We lived in Louisville. It was a government housing project.
I would say about 80% or 90% of the blacks lived in what we called the projects. And we were sort of like on an island in Louisville. I consider it being like an island, because [white] people didn’t venture into Louisville, even the cops rarely ventured into Louisville.
Eternity: The police and paramedics wouldn’t come?
Sgt Floyd: Not unless something big was happening—if somebody got shot.
Well, being an all-white police department…and you know, there were no blacks in the police department—no blacks on the ambulance service. So, they were scared to come into the neighborhood. We would have to take them out of the neighborhood, and drive them to the hospital by car if something happened.
Eternity: There it was in Alabama, and again you saw this racism—this segregation—like a kind of apartheid?
Sgt Floyd: Absolutely, absolutely…the police department had to keep a control, as if we were animals corralled within our neighborhood, the projects. We knew where we could go.
Eternity: This is in the late 1970’s…not that long ago.
Sgt. Floyd: We knew where we could go, what stores we could go to, what roads to walk and what parts of town we could go to.
We weren’t accepted in all parts of town. We weren’t accepted to walk in certain neighborhoods. Even in walking to school, we didn’t go through certain areas. For fear that we may be shot, just for crossing somebody’s yard.
Eternity: Yea, I see. So Greg, let’s go to the time when your finishing high school. What happens—what does your life look like then? Looking to the future, what do you decide for yourself?
Sgt Floyd: Well, let me give you one thing—one thing that happened to me in high school before I go into what happened after high school.
What I decided, coming out of high school, is that I looked around and I knew I wanted to get out of Louisville—out of the ghetto. I wanted to try to do something with my life.
We had been on welfare at one time—had received food stamps at one time—and I knew my mother couldn’t afford to send me to college. So I decided to make the determination that I was going to get some type of training.
So the military was the option for me, to go get training and possibly get schooling. That’s what I made up my mind to do, but right before I graduated from high school I get a delayed entry into the Marine Corps in 1979.
I joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17, and I worked for a restaurant in [Marietta] Cobb County, washing pans and dishes. And I had a couple of cousins [working there] who washed dishes, too. Well one day went to the bank near there to cash our checks. Every 2 weeks when we got paid we went there to cash our checks, and this particular day…we noticed that when we pulled into the parking lot there were Cobb County Police cars behind us.
We didn’t think much about it. The 3 of us got in line, and when I went up to cash my check they told me they couldn’t cash my check. So I was like, why? I’ve been getting my check cashed here for the last 6 months. My cousins tried to cash their checks, and they refused to cash their checks.
So we walked out of the bank, wondering why we couldn’t get our checks cashed. And we leave from there and notice a police car behind our car again, and a couple more behind us. We were like, why are these police cars behind us? I didn’t do anything, so we decided we would go to the [Marine] recruiting station, which was a few blocks down the street…to see if they follow us. They did.
We pulled up in front of the recruiting station, and we went to exit our car and about 5 or 6 police cars surrounded us. With guns out…“hands up—get your asses on the ground!” Saying “don’t move” and “N-word this, N-word that.”
So we’re sprawled out on the ground with police surrounding us, guns blazing. They decided to come over, and an [white female] officer was cursing me, calling me the N-word, and jumped on my back. Then jumped up, and kicked me between the legs.
That infuriated me, but I laid there and a bunch of other cops pounced on my cousins. Then they handcuffed us, and they asked us what we do. And we asked them, what did we do? And she kicked me again and said “shut the F up, N-word!”
They still wouldn’t tell us what happened. They took my car, which was registered to my mother. It was insured, and they put it on the back of a tow truck. And the [Marine] recruiter came out and said “what’s going on?” He happened to be a black recruiter, and [police] they told him to get the F back in the station or they were going to shoot him.
They were going to shoot a United States Marine in uniform, because he asked what was going on.
So, they took us off to jail. They called my mother and she came down. And when they hashed it out, they told us it was mistaken identity. As it happens today—the exact same thing—nothing’s changed.
Eternity: I just interviewed a [black] student, who’s also a prolific thinker and writer, and he told me a very similar story…being terrorized, and threatened with guns by a group of police, only to be told after the fact that it was mistaken identity.
Sgt. Floyd: Of course, I had a bad taste in my mouth for police at that time.
Eternity: So that experienced said what to you, Greg?
Sgt. Floyd: That experience, and every experience growing up under the finger of law enforcement, actually made me distrust cops from the beginning. It just sealed the ticket there, and I didn’t want anything to do with police.
Eternity: And you were what, 17 when this happened?
Sgt. Floyd: Yes, I was 17 when this happened.
I was afraid of the police. I didn’t trust the police. I was infuriated with the police, and wouldn’t have liked nothing better than to kill a police at that time. That’s the way I honestly felt.
Eternity: I see, and so you become a Marine. What was that experience like? Was it the similar or did you find a place here you felt respected? What did you find there?
Sgt. Floyd: I’ll tell you, I was respected, but I would say I earned my respect in the Marine Corps. I worked very hard.
I was raised by women. So on the farm, my great-grandmother gave me that “I can do anything anybody else can do.” My mother instilled that in me, and my Aunt Jewel instilled that same value in me that “we can do anything.”
I have to say one thing about the Marine Corps—and I don’t know about all branches of [military] service—the United States Marine Corps is one of the most racist places I’ve ever been.
Eternity: Really? Why is that?
Sgt. Floyd: Now boot camp there wasn’t a lot of it there. We were considered green. But when I went to my duty stations—as a whole we got along pretty well—but like in Hawaii, we were split into races—just like a microcosm. The blacks kept to the blacks, the whites to the whites, the Hispanic to the Hispanic, and that’s the way it was. And this was in the early 80’s.
At that time you could have a whole group of maybe 10 white people standing around talking, and no one said a thing, but when 3 blacks were standing there talking they told you to break it up. And this is the honest to God’s truth.
Eternity: I see.
Sgt. Floyd: They didn’t want any more than 3, because they figured we were hashing up a plan to do something.
Eternity: So, there was this underlying distrust from your superiors.
Sgt. Floyd: Absolutely. And it as the way they [whites] feel they had treated [blacks] us, I believe.
Sgt. Floyd: But you know that didn’t stop me. It infuriated me more to work harder, and I went on to become a helicopter crewman. I flew helicopters, and even went on to fly the President of the United States…President Regan, for 4 years.
Sgt. Floyd: I took that racism. I took that negativity. And it just made me want to do the best I could, and in 1983 I was selected as the Air Crewman of the Year in the United States.
I was the first black to ever make it, and this is the top air crewman, out of all reserve and active duty, in the entire Marine Corps.
Eternity: That must have felt pretty good.
Sgt. Floyd: And I’m telling you that came out of racism—I just was not going to let them be better than me.
Eternity: And out of your own resilience and character, I would say.
Sgt. Floyd: Absolutely. I was in the Marines for 10 years, and I was a Sargent E5. And I was a helicopter crew chief. That means I was a flying helicopter mechanic.
Eternity: So, at some point you leave the Marines, what was the transition there.
Well let me back up to before I left the Marines. I was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, where I as a presidential flight engineer. That means I worked on [Marine One] the presidential helicopters, and flew the President of the United States.
Eternity: What an achievement…commendable.
Sgt. Floyd: While I was doing that duty, I lived only a block away from a fire department. This was something that I wanted to do as a kid, since being in my old neighborhood watching the ambulances go the other way, as that I wanted to be a paramedic. And I ended up joining the rescue squad as a volunteer—emergency technician and paramedic—and I later became a firefighter.
While I did that duty I met police officers in the neighborhood. And during one of my nights on duty there was head on collision. One of the cars was an unmarked police car. The police offer was pretty close to death when I got there, and I called a helicopter to transport him to the hospital and saved his life.
The police department thanked me—they gave me credit for saving his life—and they asked me if I’d like to join the police department.
Sgt. Floyd: I told them no, because I was still in the Marine Corps.
I became friends with the police officers, and gained a new respect for the police. I really wanted to join the police department.
After 10 years later…came back [stateside] from Hawaii…the police kept saying “you should join us.” And one day I decided to join the police department.
I spent 16 years as a police, and what I learned during that time was how to treat people. I learned to treat all people with respect.
Eternity: Speaking of that, for you as an African-American do you see your experience as different from your white colleagues? If so, how would that be different?
Sgt. Floyd: Absolutely, it’s a different experience. But to point to that, before I talk about my experience, just today I spoke with my [former] police chief today. He was the first black officer to join the [same] police department, and he was telling me that there were certain white people he couldn’t [wasn’t allowed] even speak to. But my chief went on to become the first black chief of police in the state.
With me and my experience, there were 2 different worlds. I had to endure the jokes—you always heard the jokes and the racial slurs.
Eternity: From other police…who?
Sgt. Floyd: From other police, yeah. Absolutely, you heard it. They referred to the blacks as “n*gger.” That word was rampant in the police department.
Eternity: And this was in a northern city.
Sgt. Floyd: You heard that, and once you talked to the police officers it was always “we don’t mean you, you’re separated from them…they’re the n*ggers, not you.”
I came through that…and my police chief had to endure the same thing from his officers. So yes, we had to put up with that, and all the [white] police officers seemed to look down on the black officers. They looked down on black people.
Eternity: And these [white] police offers, do you think they considered themselves racist?
Sgt. Floyd: I don’t think they saw themselves as racist. It was the norm, and not all the officers. But the ones that used those [racial] epitaphs and slurs and that sort of thing, those were the ones who grew up with that in their homes.
It was their peers, their fathers, their brothers. So when they went to school, it was just part of their life. And you can ask anyone of them, and they gonna tell you “well we’re not a racist, because I got a black friend.”
Eternity: Yeah, right?
Sgt. Floyd: We [I] saw people in school. They were racist, but they were selective racists.
Eternity: So as a police officer, broadly speaking, what were you told was your duty?
Sgt. Floyd: As a police officer, your first duty is to serve and protect the public. You really work for the community. You are there employed by the community, for the community.
Eternity: In service to the community. But when you hear these words, police brutality—and in particular, we’ve heard a lot about this since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—what happened there? And when you hear the story about Eric Garner in New York, what’s going on there; where these unarmed black men are being killed by police, and their friends and families are saying they’ve been murdered?
Sgt. Floyd: I think in all those cases, what I see is that in those cases, the police officer broke police training.
Eternity: How so?
Sgt. Floyd: I’m not saying Michael Brown wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t there—I don’t have all the facts. But, it’s not logic.
If the officer shot Michael—in the car, as they say—he shot Michael a couple times and Michael Brown turned away and ran from this officer, the officer should not have fired another shot at Michael Brown. Now if Michael Brown turned and came back at this officer, the officer was in his right to shoot Michael Brown again. But the deal is, just thinking of me, if I attacked a police officer and the police officer shot me, and I turned around and ran from this officer—knowing the officer had a weapon behind me—am I going to turn around and run back towards this officer again? It’s not logic. It’s not logic.
When you don’t have a weapon, and he [police] done already shot you…I don’t see the truth in it.
Eternity: Makes sense, and moving beyond Michael Brown there’s Eric Garner, there’s Travon Martin, there’s Tamir Rice, there’s Oscar Grant. The list goes on and on. This is a pattern—this is an epidemic, some would say. And to you, are you saying protocol was broken in these situations?
Sgt. Floyd: Well, let me just say something about Travon Martin.
Sgt. Floyd: Even though this guy [George Zimmerman] was a security guard—he was supposed to be neighborhood watch. Neighborhood watch for Florida—and just about any jurisdiction, even the one where [Martin] was shot in—Neighborhood watch cannot carry a firearm while on neighborhood watch.
Procedure was broke right then. He [Zimmerman] should have been indicted. He wasn’t supposed have a firearm in the first place.
If you were told not to carry a firearm, and you walked down the street and shot somebody cause you had a firearm you wasn’t supposed to have in the first place, you’re going to be indicted, you’re going to court, and you’re going to jail.
Eternity: Is this because I’m African-American?
Sgt. Floyd: That would happen to anybody—I think even just about every white person, non-law enforcement. Not because you’re African-American in that spot. I think it would have helped to be African-American that you would have definitely been indicted, but any non-law enforcement.
What I’m trying to say is that law enforcement shouldn’t get a punt just because they’re law enforcement. What you’re seeing is that just because [police] the mere fact they are law enforcement, they’re justified in these killings.
Eternity: So is there or is not an element to the deaths of these unarmed black men? There’s no [jail time] prosecution resulting from any of these black men who have been killed.
Sgt. Floyd: It’s absolutely a racial overtone to this. As a matter of fact, look at Ferguson. I don’t know the exact number of the black men that have been killed [by police] in that area—the St. Louis area, recently—but I think it’s somewhere between 6 and 12. Zero officers were indicted in any of those cases. Any why is the prosecutor not indicting anyone?
A prosecutor’s job is to work for the victim. The prosecutor in Ferguson did not represent [Michael Brown] the victim. He totally represented the police department on this.
When I was a police officer, we had a county prosecutor who heard our cases and solved our cases. I went and testified on many of those cases, so we depend on each other to win our cases. But the deal is, as a prosecutor and police officer we should not be able to investigate our [own] cases and represent each other. That should be taken out…and put into an independent prosecutor’s hand. They need to change the law.
Eternity: And speaking of the law, I have a 2-part question for you. In your experience have you ever shot or killed anyone in your official capacity—why or why not?
Sgt. Floyd: I have never shot or killed anyone. I have had my weapon out on lots of occasions.
Eternity: In 16 years as a police officer you managed not to ever shot anyone…working in a high-density population?
Sgt. Floyd: Very high density…
Eternity: What’s the difference there—how did you manage not to shot anyone in all those years?
Sgt. Floyd: I’m going to take it to a couple things. I wasn’t afraid of a black person. I was afraid of anybody doing me overt harm, but I didn’t go out there afraid of a black man—that every black man was going to do me harm. I didn’t go out there with that attitude. And too, I went out there with a respect for other people. My police procedures and protocols, I followed them to the letter.
I approached officer safety, that I wanted them to go home at night, and I also approached people, that I wanted them to go home at night.
I didn’t want that on my conscience to kill anybody. I followed police procedure.
Eternity: So, this really is possible—all these deaths are not necessary. And Greg, as we come to a close in this discussion what is your message to police departments around the US?
Sgt. Floyd: I’ll tell you what, and not in all cases, because the situation sort of dictates. But in just about all cases, a police officer, when he/she gets out of the car or is walking down the street and approaches any person—Black, White, Hispanic or Asian—you have to approach them with some sense of respect. Everybody wants to be respected. Always treat people with respect.
I think that’s a lot of it, is your [police] initial approach in the first place. And then, use proper police procedure.
There should some type of training in all police departments on customs and courtesies of all people.