At George Floyd’s Treatment Center, Recovering Clients See Racism in Addiction Assumptions
Divine Mohammad, who used to be addicted to drugs, is now a recovery coach at Turning Point. Pictured in March 2021, he rises early each day to walk his dogs near the family's southside home in Minneapolis. (David Joles | Star Tribune)
Divine Mohammad knew right away that some people would use George Floyd’s drug use to discredit him.
Like Floyd, Mohammad is Black and once struggled with chemical addiction. Like Floyd, Mohammad had his own run-ins with Minneapolis police. He had lost several friends to police killings and knew that defenders of law enforcement would look for a reason to justify why police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes.
“I’m going to call it like it is: When a Black man gets killed, the first thing they want to say is the negative things about him,” said Mohammad, who works at the addiction treatment center Turning Point in north Minneapolis. “There’s always an excuse.”
The Chauvin murder trial is shining a light on the intersection of addiction, race and criminal justice as the defense argues that Floyd died of a drug overdose and other health conditions, not from the pressure Chauvin put on his neck.
For some men at Turning Point, where Floyd attended a 90-day treatment program in 2017, the focus on his drug use is an example of how chemical dependency among African Americans can be disproportionately stigmatized and used to justify their mistreatment.
Attention to the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in Floyd’s system following his death goes beyond the courtroom: Duke University is investigating the posting of Floyd’s toxicology report on a Black History Month display with a handwritten note that read, in part, “Mix of drugs presents in difficulty breathing! Overdose? Good Man?” In Denver, someone spray painted “Fentanyl Floyd” over a mural depicting his image. Social media abounds with vitriolic comments about Floyd’s addiction and relapse.
“You don’t ever hear a cancer patient being talked about negatively,” said Mohammad. “Substance abuse disorder is a disease of the brain. but when it comes to African Americans, it’s like we’re not treated like we have a disease.”
Minnesota is a national destination for people seeking addiction treatment, but its recovery community is mostly white. In 1976, Peter Hayden opened Turning Point after seeing the need for rehab programs welcoming to Black men, and he and his staff have heard many clients recount their struggles with racism, police harassment, poverty and incarceration.
Floyd came to Turning Point from Houston but relapsed off and on after leaving the program, according to his girlfriend Courteney Ross, and in 2019 he told police officers after a traffic stop that he had a painkiller addiction. Hayden was dismayed to see how critics have used Floyd’s past to disparage him in his police encounter.
“We’re always seen as a perpetrator rather than a victim,” Hayden said of African Americans.
To addiction experts and Turning Point’s staff, multiple relapses and stints in rehab are a normal part of the lifelong recovery journey. Several studies have estimated that up to 60% of people relapse within six months to a year of completing a treatment program, and a study by Millennium Health found double-digit increases in positive tests for several drugs during the first few months of the pandemic, including a 32% rise in fentanyl.
“If you have two heart procedures, no one talks about you as the scum of the earth, but if you go to treatment and you’re African American and you go one time and you have to go back again, then you failed the program,” Hayden said.
On a recent afternoon at Turning Point’s office, he gestured around the table at a handful of staff members, including Mohammad, who had overcome their own addictions and now own homes and enjoy successful lives. Floyd, he said, could have become one of them.
Walter Marmillion used to be what he called a “working addict,” doing drugs and holding down a job. He has been sober for 21 years and now works as a linkage coordinator at the facility.
“And if [a police officer] was to look at my record, that I was coming from a recovery program, where was he going to place me? … Am I violent?” Marmillion said. “I think I might have been pinned down like that too, just being Black.”
A dozen years older than Floyd, Mohammad sees many parallels to him, even though they grew up in different cities. And warnings about police brutality came early.
As a child in the early 1970s, Mohammad’s uncle was driving him and his siblings down Plymouth Avenue when a police officer pulled them over. As the kids joked, he snapped at them to be quiet, later explaining: “Police, they whoop on people like us.”
Later that decade, his friend’s mother was pulled over for drunken driving, and Mohammad, also under the influence, grew belligerent as he and a few others in the car tried to defend her to the officer. Mohammad recalled that he got “whooped up real good,” emerging with knots on his head and his leg nearly broken. “Don’t you know better than to [expletive] with the Minneapolis Police Department?” he remembered the Black cop saying.
He heard plenty of stories over the years from Black friends about facing brutality from Minneapolis police and mourned several friends shot and killed by cops. Mohammad went to Turning Point for addiction treatment in 1990 and did well for a while. After losing several jobs, he went back to hustling drugs and went to prison from 1992 to 1997 for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. Mohammad stayed sober for many years but became addicted to painkillers in 2010, after doctors prescribed the pills for his arthritis. He was also caring for his wife in their Phoenix home as she was dying from ovarian cancer. The medication relieved his anguish, briefly.
“It was hell,” said Mohammad. “I used to get high on coke and crack, but the opiate thing was a whole ‘nother monster.”
That’s why he can relate to Floyd’s hardships in overcoming a painkiller addiction. Mohammad got sober in 2013 and has remained so. Upon returning to Minneapolis in 2017, he found that people he used to know as crack addicts had become hooked on opioids.
By then, the opioid crisis had been declared a national emergency, and some policymakers favored treatment over imprisonment, as white people became the face of opioid addiction. Treatment professionals noted it was a shift from the tough-on-crime approach to the crack epidemic that had ravaged Black communities in the ’80s and ’90s. An estimated 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers in 2019.
Joining Turning Point, Mohammad worked with men after they had completed their rehab program, as they tried to forge a sober life over the long term. He’d say, “No matter how old you are now, you can come back and be the great member of society you want to be.”
As news spread of Floyd’s death, Mohammad recognized his name. He had met Floyd just once, at a 2018 barbecue hosted by Turning Point. Mohammad turned to his wife in their home near the heart of protests and riots in south Minneapolis and said, “Do you know how many times that could have been me?”
Watching videos of Floyd struggling with officers and begging not to be put in the squad car also brought back Mohammad’s own painful memories of trying to negotiate with police while he was on drugs. He thought back to the time in the 1980s when he was arrested for stealing food from a grocery store while high on crack cocaine and he pleaded with police not to handcuff him, wracked with panic.
“I could relate to the anxiety that he was going through. … I related to the crying and the begging and, ‘Oh man, why are you messing with me?'” Mohammad said.
Still, he firmly rejected the idea that Floyd had died of a drug overdose with a knee on his neck. Floyd’s behavior didn’t match that of a person overdosing, the way he saw it: Floyd had been walking and talking just fine shortly before police came.
Mohammad cannot say why his fate diverged so greatly from Floyd’s, but he knows that his life of sobriety these days followed many, many extra chances — chances that Mohammad believes Chauvin took away from Floyd last May.
Every day he wakes up and prays to God to guide him as he works with his “second family” at Turning Point. He walks his Chihuahuas, Lulu and Louis Vutton. Two years ago he married his longtime friend Jennifer Clark, who kisses him goodbye before he heads out and encourages him to go make a difference.
That has grown harder since the pandemic began and crime spiked after Floyd’s death. Some days, he feels frustrated driving by men he used to know doing drugs and wants to join them.
“I see my people struggling and I want to give up,” Mohammad said. “I see people get killed, I want to give up.”
But he knows to keep on driving. The guys in recovery are counting on him.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.