George Floyd’s body lay in a carefully polished gold casket reflecting a struggle and a beauty bigger than any one man.
In the surrounding sanctuary, hundreds of politicians, civic leaders and celebrities gathered Thursday to support a grieving family and pay respects to the 46-year-old black security guard who gasped for air in the final minutes of his life beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. It was a scene that sparked global anger like few police brutality cases before it, challenging a nation to confront its racial disparities and injustices at the hands of law enforcement.
“When I looked this time and saw marches where, in some cases, young whites outnumbered the blacks marching, I know that it’s a different time and a different season,” said national civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, referencing a Bible verse in a eulogy that roused several standing ovations. “Go on home, George. Get your rest, George. You changed the world, George.”
The private service at North Central University, about 3 miles from the site of Floyd’s Memorial Day arrest, followed more than a week of escalating tensions in cities across the nation, his death spurring widespread arson, looting and destruction as well as massive but peaceful protests. It came amid economic hardship and national unrest spurred by a COVID-19 pandemic that’s claimed more than 100,000 lives.
A few of Floyd’s family members spoke with reverence for the man they said they looked up to growing up in Houston.
As he stood behind his brother’s casket, amid displays with Floyd’s image and sprays of white and purple flowers, Philonise Floyd said the family was poor and didn’t have much.
They washed their socks in a sink and dried them on a water heater because they didn’t have machines, he said — but he and “Perry,” as they called George, were happy playing video games and football and cooking and dancing with their mother.
“Everywhere you’d go and see people how they cling to him,” the brother said. “They wanted to be around him. ... George, he was like a general. Every day, he walks outside, there’d be a line of people … wanted to greet him and wanted to have fun with him. Guys that was doing drugs, smokers and homeless people, you couldn’t tell, because when you spoke to George, they felt like they was the president. Because that’s how he made you feel.”
“It’s crazy, man,” he said. “All these people came to see my brother. That’s amazing to me that he touched so many people’s hearts. You know, because he been touching our hearts.”
Cousin Shareeduh Tate said they were raised in a family that welcomed everyone.
“George was somebody who was always welcoming, always making people feel like that they were special. Nobody felt left out,” she said, adding that she will miss his hugs the most.
“He was this great big giant, and when he would wrap his arms around you, you would just feel like … everything would just go away. Any problems you had, any concerns you had would go away.”
All four fired officers charged
As of Wednesday, all four officers involved in the case had been arrested: Officer Derek Chauvin, who was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck in a bystander video that went viral, was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The other three officers on the scene face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder while committing a felony and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence.
Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said a team of lawyers is working together for the family because it will take “a united effort in the courtroom and outside the courtroom to get justice for George Floyd.”
‘Pandemic of racism’
Floyd wasn’t killed by the coronavirus, Crump told the mask-wearing crowd inside the sanctuary, but by the “other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America — that pandemic of racism and discrimination.”
Sharpton’s speech drew both quiet reflection and loud applause from the crowd in the sanctuary, including Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest.
Also sitting among them were civil rights leaders Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Celebrities attending the two-hour service included actor Kevin Hart and rappers Master P and Ludacris, along with several members of the Minnesota Vikings and retired NBA standout Stephen Jackson, one of Floyd’s closest friends.
Before the ceremony, Frey appeared to sob as he knelt before Floyd’s casket.
Thursday’s service was the first of three this week to memorialize Floyd. Another memorial is scheduled for Saturday in Raeford, N.C., where Floyd was born. On Tuesday, a funeral will be held in Houston, where he lived much of his life until moving to the Twin Cities about five years ago.
Knee of racism
In his eulogy Thursday, Sharpton drew parallels between the police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck and a knee of racism on the necks of people of color.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” he said. “The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being, is you kept your knee on our neck.
“We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills. We could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck.
“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country in education and health services and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’
“We don’t want no favors,” Sharpton continued. “Just get up off of us.”
Sharpton referenced President Donald Trump, who held a Bible this week in front of a house of worship in the nation’s capital.
“First of all, we cannot use Bibles as a prop,” he said. “For those that have agendas that are not about justice, this family will not let you use George as a prop.”
Outside the worship hall near Elliot Park, as the service broadcast on loudspeakers, a reverent crowd of hundreds did not chant or shout, but listened with solidarity.
A local chef had secured donations to grill free food. Other groups set up tables offering free groceries and dry goods.
Many spoke of the need to focus on a problem on which the nation cannot turn its back.
“This memorial service is a way to say goodbye and honor a life, but it also stands as a public marking point to say ‘never again,’ ” said Matt Allen, 29, of St. Paul, a volunteer offering first aid and hand sanitizer. “It was important to me to be here and engage in that collective voice.”
Maudeline St.-Jean and her sons Luke, 13, and Zachary, 15, came from Burnsville to show support for Floyd’s family and the struggle.
“Things can change. There’s hope that change can come,” said St.-Jean, who is black. Though she wonders, “Will it be slow or fast?”
Though the boys were wary of attending because of the violence surrounding many of the protests, St.-Jean reassured them. “You don’t have to be scared or worried. This is about showing support,” she said.
Still, some in the crowd wondered if, in the coming weeks and months, the attention would fade, as it has with so many cases before.
“White people coming here, feeling sad — what happens when all those white people go back to their jobs in the suburbs?” said Jennifer Schnarr of Burnsville, who is white and was outside the memorial venue. “People need to get out there every day.”
Minutes of silence
Near the end of the ceremony inside, the sanctuary grew quiet as Sharpton urged the crowd to stand for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time Chauvin knelt on a handcuffed Floyd’s neck as Floyd repeated “I can’t breathe” before falling motionless.
As soft keyboard music filled the sanctuary, tears streamed down the mourners’ faces. A man blurted out, “I can’t breathe.” Another man fell to his knees in grief. Family members hugged each other gently.
“That’s a long time. There’s no excuse,” Sharpton said as the time expired, referencing the officers who helped restrain Floyd or stood nearby.
“They had enough time. They had enough time. Now what will we do with the time we have?”
Staff writers John Reinan, Mara Klecker, Rochelle Olson and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.