The final words in tribute to the 46-year-old father, friend and brother were a recommitment by those who knew him — and now millions who know of him — to turn against racism. Speaker after speaker at his funeral Tuesday afternoon implored America to move from indifference to healing, from fear to courage and from mistrust to unity. They want to ensure Floyd’s life was not lost in vain.
He was laid in a gold casket, celebrated and remembered by elected leaders, celebrities, activists and Floyd’s family, who all wore white as they eulogized him. Stories about his life growing up in Houston intertwined with rebukes of the attitudes and policies that facilitated his slaying, a nine-minute slow-motion death with a police officer’s knee on the back of his neck.
Floyd was the oldest of five siblings, and his family begged of the world just one thing: “Fight for my brother.”
If the past two weeks are any indication, that fight has been taken up by countless Americans, as protests spread from the streets of Minneapolis to cities across the country and even the globe. Demonstrators of all kinds have implored a rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement and a reckoning of how police treat black citizens, with some cities promising to overhaul — or even disband — their police departments.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared Tuesday “George ‘Perry’ Day” and announced that he would sign an executive order banning police chokeholds and requiring city officers to de-escalate confrontations and exhaust all alternatives before using their guns. Turner said Floyd gave his final breaths so that others won’t endure the same fate.
“The rest of us will now be able to breathe,” Turner said.
The world knows Floyd because of the video that depicts his brutal death and spawned collective heartache. But on Tuesday, his aunt, Kathleen McGee, remembered him as a “pesky little rascal,” who grew up in Houston’s Third Ward, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that in Floyd’s day was plagued by the same systemic problems his death illuminated.
Floyd was born in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1973 to Larcenia Jones Floyd, affectionately known as “Miss Cissy” when she came to live at Cuney Homes, a large brick-faced housing complex in the heart of Houston’s Third Ward. She worked at a burger stand nearby, Guidry’s, where Floyd would come often and snack on whatever food she would surrender.
“Sometimes we’d just go through there and he’d go check on his mom and we would grab a burger or fries and a drink or something,” said friend Herbert Mouton. “It was a simple thing. Just going to check on his mom at work.”
But it was a habit born of the devotion Floyd practiced his entire life, checking in on the people he loved. The tightknit bonds between neighbors and friends, often forged in adversity, enveloped the budding young man as he excelled in football and basketball at Jack Yates High School.
His classmates and Yates alumni held a candlelight vigil for him Monday night, and landmarks across Texas’s largest cities lit up in the high school’s crimson and gold colors to honor Floyd.
Floyd was the first in his family to graduate high school, and he went on to junior college to play football but did not finish or earn a degree. Family members said he struggled for years trying to find a job after running afoul of the law.
Moving to the Twin Cities in 2014 was an effort by Floyd — now a father of several children, the youngest of whom former vice president Joe Biden addressed in his funeral message — to steer his life in a new direction. But he was devastated when his mother died some time later, friends said. Floyd’s autopsy noted that he had her name tattooed on his torso.
Few Third Ward residents recognized it was Floyd in the video of his death. Craig Joseph’s family owns the soul food restaurant Houston This is It, a few minutes’ walk from Cuney Homes. Floyd, he said, was a “frequent flier” who came in often for the popular ox tail meal or fried fish.
Joseph was sitting back in his chair watching CNN at home when he first saw the images of Floyd’s death and sat up immediately. He was startled by the barbarism he witnessed, but then he recognized why it had jolted him. His brother Gerald Side, who played football with Floyd at Yates, squinted at the restaurant screens until he finally realized who it was.
“Oh man, Flo,” he recalled shaking his head. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Side wanted to come to the funeral but the fear that the novel coronavirus, which has disproportionately harmed black communities, would be lurking kept him from joining the crowds.
Hundreds of people filed into the private ceremony at Fountain of Praise Church, passing by a bed of flower bouquets resting beneath a poster-size selfie of Floyd. Inside, a display of white roses formed a heart, and blue flowers formed the letters, “BLM.”
Outside, small groups of people gathered to watch and talk. Navajo activist Nicole Walker drove from New Mexico with her husband. Wrapping herself in a burial flag, she said she felt kinship to Floyd’s family because of the racist indignities suffered by Native Americans.
“It’s time for healing,” Walker said. “This is only the beginning.”
A day earlier, Pete and Christine Mayes of Sugarland, Tex., waited hours under a black umbrella to walk past Floyd’s casket. Pete, who is black, said Floyd’s killing pushed him to come out and say, “Enough is enough!”
His wife, Christine, who is white, said her family never talked about race growing up, so it was never on her radar. It wasn’t until after she married Pete and Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, that she started to confront her unconscious biases. Now, she’s speaking up.
“We have been quiet for too long,” she said. “We should’ve spoken up decades ago. I’m ashamed that I’m just now finding my voice.”
Funeral speakers said Floyd’s death marked a breaking point, inspiring widespread demonstrations and proclamations from leaders promising to change how the nation polices itself. Americans, they said, are looking inward to transform sorrow into substantive action.
“And until we know the price for black life is the same as the price for white life, we’re gonna keep coming back to these situations over and over again,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said during the service. “They never thought they’d see young whites marching like they’re marching now. . . . All over the world, I’ve seen grandchildren of slave masters pulling down statues of slave masters. I’ve seen whites walking past curfews saying black lives matter. God always uses unlikely people to do his will.”
Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, directed part of his remarks to Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna. Too many black children like her have had to ask what happened to their fathers, he said in a recorded message that was played during the funeral.
“Why, in this nation, do black Americans wake up knowing they can lose their life just for living their life?” Biden asked.
The Rev. William A. Lawson, pastor emeritus of Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, drew parallels between the story of Jesus and Floyd, both of whom, he said, came from humble beginnings and whose slayings changed the world.
“Can any good thing come out of a tragedy like this?” Lawson said. “His death did not simply start a bunch of good speeches, a bunch of tributes. Out of his death has come a movement, a worldwide movement.”
It is tragic that Floyd had to lose his life, said Omar Simmonds, 42, a flight attendant who drove from Dallas to stand outside the funeral in temperatures that soared to nearly 100 degrees. But he said it was a sacrifice Floyd’s family made for him and his family.
“We need a change, and I think that starts today,” he said. “I want to be a part of this.”
Iati and Beachum reported from Washington. Michael Brice-Saddler in Washington contributed to this report.