Op-Ed

At George Floyd Memorial, an Anguished Call for Change

MINNEAPOLIS — Hundreds of people filed into a Minneapolis chapel on Thursday to remember George Floyd, the man whose death at the hands of the police opened a nationwide flood of anguish, protest and demands for change in American policing.

By turns somber and defiant, the mourners celebrated Mr. Floyd as a friend and father and uncle to those closest to him, but also as a victim of racial injustice whose killing had drawn a legion of people to the streets.

“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a eulogy of Mr. Floyd, who died after a white police officer held him down on a Minneapolis street with a knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. “Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck.”

The gathering, the first of several memorials for Mr. Floyd in different cities in the coming days, drew Mr. Floyd’s family members, political leaders, civil rights leaders and celebrities — many in masks out of concern for the coronavirus.

“We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in,” Mr. Sharpton said. “But you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the streets, 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.”

“It’s time to stand up and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks,’ ” Mr. Sharpton went on, as raucous applause broke out in the university sanctuary where Mr. Floyd’s body rested inside a closed, shiny copper coffin.

All the while, marches were taking place around the country on Thursday, as thousands of people in cities far from Minneapolis poured into parks and streets calling for an end to systemic racism in the justice system on a 10th day of protests. Demonstrators marched in cities including New York, Nashville, Seattle and Santa Monica, Calif. And around the country, people watched the eulogy to Mr. Floyd on television and online.

The two-hour service served as a call for activism after more than a week of upheaval prompted by the video of the police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he lay face down and handcuffed on the pavement, saying “I can’t breathe.”

In a service punctuated by gospel music, Mr. Floyd’s relatives told personal stories, of the man they knew as Perry, and whom people in the neighborhood had called “Big Floyd.” He had a gift at making people feel welcome. His brother Philonise Floyd called him a “general,” someone who always had a line of friends behind him.

“Everywhere you go and see people, how they cling to him. They wanted to be around him,” he said.

“Being in the house with my brother, it was inspiring,” he added, “because my mom used to take in other kids, and they were George’s friends.”

He recalled sharing a bed with his big brother. Together, they played football and ate banana-and-mayonnaise sandwiches and used an oven to dry their socks.

One of his cousins, Shareeduh Tate, said, “The thing I miss most about him is his hugs. He was just this big giant.”

A mural above the dais of the Frank J. Lindquist Sanctuary at North Central University depicted Mr. Floyd’s face above the words “Now I can breathe.” An usher stood watch over the coffin, which was surrounded by white sprays of flowers.

The death of Mr. Floyd, 46, on May 25 in front of a corner market called Cup Foods in Minneapolis, has galvanized a nation, with protesters pouring into the streets in cities and small towns alike, as well as across the world.

Mr. Sharpton, who denounced violent protests and lootings that have occurred in some places, said he was heartened that Mr. Floyd’s death, captured on cellphone video and shared globally, had moved white people to join demonstrations condemning misconduct against black Americans.

“When I looked this time and saw marches where in some cases young whites outnumbered the blacks marching, I know that it is a different time and a different season. When I looked and saw people in Germany marching for George Floyd, it’s a different time and a different season,” he said, citing verses from Ecclesiastes, and then adding, “I come to tell you, America, this is the time of building accountability in the criminal justice system.”

Mourners had their temperatures taken as they entered the service, a stark reminder of the pandemic still taking place amid the outcry over Mr. Floyd’s death. Some people sat spaced apart, and were urged to practice social distancing measures.

Before the service, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz, Mayors Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Melvin Carter of St. Paul and many others milled about, quietly greeting each other with nods and elbow bumps and sometimes hugs. Celebrities like Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, T.I. and Ludacris were also present.

At one point, Mr. Frey knelt with one hand on the coffin for minutes, his body heaving, and rose with tears on his face.

“It was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd,” said Benjamin Crump, the civil rights lawyer who represents the Floyd family. “It was that other pandemic we’re all too familiar with in America — it was that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd.”

To loud applause, the Rev. Scott Hagen, president of North Central University, announced the creation of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship, adding that since Mr. Floyd’s death, people had given $53,000 specifically for the education of young black people.

“I’m now challenging every university president in the United States of America to establish your own George Floyd memorial scholarship fund,” he said.

On Saturday, Mr. Floyd is to be remembered in Raeford, N.C., where some of his family lives, and another memorial is planned on Monday in Houston, where Mr. Floyd lived for many years.

The ceremony in Minneapolis was open only to invited guests and family members, but hundreds of people gathered outside the chapel under cloudy skies. On the street, T-shirts with images of Mr. Floyd and the words, “I can’t breathe,” were on sale.

“George Floyd really sparked a movement that was brewing to happen,” said Nataly Quintero, who waited in the crowd outside.

Ms. Quintero, who is Latina, she said wanted to show solidarity with black Americans. “We can feel our blood boil over the injustice. It’s a historical moment.”

The service came a day after more serious charges were announced against the white police officer who wedged his knee onto Mr. Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, and after charges were issued against three other officers who participated in the arrest. All have been fired.

The State of Minnesota has filed a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis police force over Mr. Floyd’s death, pledging to investigate whether the department has engaged in systemic discriminatory practices.

Mr. Floyd had moved to Minneapolis about five years ago, after leaving his home in Houston, where he had been a star football and basketball player in high school. When he returned to Houston for his mother’s funeral two years ago, he told a cousin that Minneapolis had come to feel like home.

The city he adopted now stands full of tributes and memorials to him; in recent days, the names of other black men and women killed by police officers across the country have been written in large pink, blue, yellow and green chalk letters on the street where Mr. Floyd was arrested.

As the memorial service came to a close on Thursday afternoon, mourners were asked to pause and stand for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time that Mr. Floyd spent on the ground with the police officer’s knee pressing into his neck.

During the long silence, some in the crowd wept behind masks.

Dionne Searcey reported from Minneapolis. Reporting was contributed by Richard Pérez-Peña from Glen Rock, N.J., Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura from Minneapolis, Isabella Grullon Paz from New York, and Audra D. S. Burch from Hollywood, Fla.


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