MINNEAPOLIS – George Floyd’s memorial service here Thursday brought calls for sweeping change in America, as the Rev. Al Sharpton called Floyd’s death emblematic of oppression black people have faced since the nation’s founding and announced a new March on Washington reminiscent of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic action.
Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody – after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes – has sent people spilling into the streets to protest police violence as part of a public uprising unlike any the country has seen in decades. The memorial service comes a day after three of the former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death were criminally charged and a fourth saw a murder charge upgraded from third-degree to second-degree.
Sharpton, president of the civil rights organization National Action Network, took the stand at Thursday’s service to say that Floyd’s story “has been the story of black folks” in the United States for hundreds of years.
“The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be, is you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton said, adding later: “What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country – in education, in 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.’ ”
Announcing a new March on Washington on Aug. 28 to “recommit” to King’s ideals and push for criminal justice reform, Sharpton echoed Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump’s earlier call for the private ceremony to be not just a celebration of Floyd’s life, but also “a plea to America and a plea for justice that we don’t let his death be in vain.”
“In one era, we had to fight slavery,” Sharpton said. “Another era we had to fight Jim Crow, another era we dealt with voting rights. This is the era to deal with policing and criminal justice. We need to go back to Washington and stand up – black, white, Latino, Arab – in the shadows of Lincoln and tell them this is the time to stop this.”
Downtown at North Central University, inside the sanctuary, there were smiles and tears among the few hundred who had gathered as Floyd’s family took the stage to talk about their loved one in deeply personal terms, moving beyond the image of a man whose final moments have gone viral and outraged the nation and the world.
Floyd grew up as part of a large family in Houston’s Third Ward, raised by a single mother in a house where they didn’t have much “but was full of love,” his younger brother Rodney Floyd said. The kids lived off banana and mayonnaise sandwiches and handwashed their socks and underwear in the kitchen sink every night before school to have clean clothes for the next day.
The family and others who were closest to Floyd called him “Perry,” his middle name, and recalled a kind, gregarious soul who brought home kids from school who had nowhere else to go. Sometimes there were 30 or 40 kids in the house, his brother Philonise Floyd tearfully recalled. “He touched so many people,” he said.
A cousin, Shareeduh Tate, recalled Floyd’s hugs. He was a “gentle giant,” she said, “and when he would wrap his arms around you, you just felt like everything would just go away, any problems, any concerns.”
As a hearse carrying Floyd’s coffin arrived at the university around 9:45 a.m. Thursday, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo knelt in a show of respect. Officials ordered the flag outside the combined city hall and county courthouse to be flown at half-staff.
Floyd’s coffin was brought into a large sanctuary and positioned before a small stage. Above it was a screen with an image of the large mural bearing Floyd’s name and face that was painted on the side of the Cup Foods building, near where he was killed.
Under the lights, the coffin gleamed a shiny gold, projecting a warm light across the sanctuary.
In attendance were Democratic public officials including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, actor/director Tyler Perry and actors Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart.
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was among those who arrived early. He quickly paid his respects at Floyd’s coffin. As he took his seat, an aide stuffed a face mask into Jackson’s front pocket.
Klobuchar, wearing a blue bandanna over her face, stood at Floyd’s coffin, her head bowed, and touched it before turning away. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, D, knelt at the coffin for several minutes. His body shook, and he appeared to be crying.
In a brief speech after the service began, Crump declared that although the coronavirus pandemic required the event to remain on a strict schedule, the virus did not kill Floyd. An official autopsy, released Wednesday, found that Floyd had the coronavirus in early April.
“I want to make it clear on the record,” Crump told the crowd. “It was the other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America, that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd.”
Outside, a few hundred people of various races and ages gathered in Elliot Park, where the service was being aired over speakers. The mood was somber, and attendees stood quietly.
As he listened to the service, Tracy Wesley said he had been working as a funeral director for 35 years and had seen many black men die before their time. The work had taken a toll on him, he said.
“It’s not easy for us from the standpoint of what’s happening, and it’s not easy for us emotionally as well,” Wesley said. “But as a professional, you have to do what you have to do to serve and honor the family.”
While he served free meals to people milling around, Charles Caine said he felt relieved that the officers involved in Floyd’s death had been charged.
“Once they are convicted, we as a people will feel more vindicated and feel a lot better,” he said.
At the end of the service, Sharpton called on those in attendance to stand in a moment of silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time an officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. As the time went on, many people in the room began to loudly sob, including members of Floyd’s family.
From the back, a man cried out, his voice muffled by a face mask, “I can’t breathe!”
That caused many to cry even harder.
A man turned away from the podium, his face concealed by a mask, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” someone else cried out.
“They had enough time,” Sharpton said of the police officers as the time concluded. “Now what are we going to do with our time?”
The former officers charged Wednesday – J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao – made their first court appearance at about the same time as the service, the Star-Tribune reported. They face charges of felony aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, was previously charged with murder and manslaughter. Prosecutors upgraded the murder charge Wednesday from third-degree to second-degree, which requires them to prove that, although Chauvin might not have intended to kill Floyd, he did mean to commit the underlying felony of aggravated assault.
Another memorial for Floyd is scheduled for Saturday in Raeford, N.C., near Floyd’s birthplace. There will also be a public memorial for him Monday in Houston, and he is expected to be buried during a private ceremony Tuesday.