The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George Floyd was an ordinary man. His memorial was a reminder of that simple, powerful fact.

George Floyd's memorial was both unique and familiar. And, perhaps, hopeful. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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George Floyd was unique but he was also ordinary. His homegoing Thursday unfolded under the most abnormal circumstances, but it was also deeply familiar.

We’d seen it all before: the grieving family, the boldface participants, the declarations of injustice. If there are differences, they were in the details. And perhaps, in the details, there is hope.

Floyd’s family filed into the memorial service at North Central University in Minneapolis wearing their dignified mourning fashion: dark suits and sober dresses. The sad women and the big men with tears in their eyes took their seats of honor.

As the service opened, Floyd’s brothers gathered behind his golden coffin and gave the world snippets of his beloved personality — words that would make him, the one the family called Perry, more than the victim in the video, the catalyst of an uprising and a symbol now in the hands of the world. Philonise Floyd told anecdotes of playing ball with his brother, of eating banana-and-mayonnaise sandwiches with him and of how they were always their mother’s sons.

George Floyd was just a guy, in all the simplicity and complexity that entails.

The memorial service had the touchstones of black church. The soloist sang an imperfect but emotional rendition of “Amazing Grace” and the audience raised their hands in praise. Men dabbed their perspiring brows with handkerchiefs. Each speaker delivered a mini-sermon and that was just fine with the audience because a homegoing takes time.

Sharpton decries oppression of black Americans at George Floyd’s memorial: ‘Get your knee off our necks’

The service took place against the backdrop of covid-19, something that once seemed so strange and rare and now seems to have faded into the background like readily ignored white noise. Some guests were wearing masks — or bandannas if you were Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — and kind of, sort of social distancing even as they were shaking hands and leaning in to exchange greetings. Many masks read “I can’t breathe,” which were among the last words Floyd spoke as he died with a white police officer’s knee pressed down on his neck. But they were also the final gasps of Eric Garner, who also died by police force. The masks weren’t extraordinary because this is our shrugged-off reality. And the truth they proclaimed was grotesquely familiar.

There were also masks emblazoned with NAN for the National Action Network, which meant that its founder, Rev. Al Sharpton was on site.

Of course, Sharpton was there — dutifully masked and gloved. He is always there in these situations. “Nobody calls me to keep a secret,” Sharpton said as he began to deliver Floyd’s eulogy. “They call me to blow up issues.”

Sharpton was at the lectern letting his words roar and flow, telling stories that circled back on each other in the familiar hermeneutics of black preachers. He talked about growing up poor and watching cockroaches scatter in the bright light, and that led to an explanation of how he’s spent a lifetime chasing away a more malignant kind of infestation all over the country. He talked about being late for some other event because he’d forgotten to reset his watch when daylight saving time began and that mishap with time became a metaphor for declaring that the country is on the march toward a new, more just chapter in its history.

Photos from the memorial service of George Floyd

When Sharpton was finished, he started thanking dignitaries and introducing guests and meandering onto tangents, which is what preachers do when they’re winding down from their sermon. One half-expected Sharpton to start taking up an offering, but then the singers began; praying began. The memorial was familiar in all its contours, with its audience of saddened bureaucrats, civil rights veterans such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, dashes of celebrity including Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, and the lawyer Benjamin Crump, who has become the omnipresent counselor of grieving, victimized families.

Floyd has been elevated into an icon. The mural that loomed over his casket — the one that framed his face in a halo of flames and made him look otherworldly — underscored that. In recent years, there have been many emblems of racial injustice. And “Amazing Grace” and thoughts and prayers are familiar balm. But Sharpton noted that this moment may prove to be distinctive — “a different time and a different season,” he said. The mourners are not only the deceased’s immediate family and others who look like them. Those in the majority have stepped forward in bountiful numbers. They were in the sanctuary with their head lowered for Floyd. They have been protesting. They have taken a knee.

And so there’s hope. Not because white people see themselves as allies but because they recognize what it means to be human.