ATLANTA — Mourners gathered for the funeral of Rayshard Brooks on Tuesday in Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic Atlanta sanctuary that rose after the Civil War and Reconstruction, survived decades of Jim Crow laws, and for years served as a spiritual home for civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The years weighed heavily as family and friends clad in white and wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemic filed into the red-brick church under cloudy skies, for yet another black man killed, with a white police officer accused of murder in his death.
They mourned one man, and yet so many men and women, taken from their families over months and many years.
"This did not have to happen to Rayshard," the Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of King Jr. and the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said of Brooks, who was fatally shot June 12. King called the moment "all too familiar."
She was 5 when her father was assassinated. She wore a lacy white dress to his funeral in the same church in 1968. Fifty-two years later, she stood at the pulpit and saw Brooks’s three daughters, also in white dresses.
“There’s so many ways that Friday, June 12, could have ended, and a police killing did not have to be one of them. And yet here we are again,” she said.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, said Brooks “is the latest high-profile casualty in the struggle for justice and a battle for the soul of America.”
“This is about him, but it is much bigger than him,” Warnock said, invoking the names of George Floyd, who died in May when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Breonna Taylor, an EMT, shot and killed in March by police in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February by men who chased him while he was jogging, and many others. Three white men have been charged in Arbery’s death.
“This country has become too accustomed and comfortable with black people dying,” Warnock said.
Brooks, a 27-year-old married father of four, was shot and killed by a police officer who said he was investigating a report of an intoxicated man sleeping in a car at a Wendy’s drive-through in Atlanta, authorities said. Brooks failed a field sobriety test. When officers tried to handcuff Brooks after speaking with him for nearly a half-hour, a scuffle broke out, Brooks grabbed an officer’s Taser and started running, according to a preliminary report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Video of the incident shows Brooks pointing the Taser toward officers while running away; shots are then heard. Brooks died of two gunshot wounds to the back, according to authorities.
Brooks’ death led to the resignation of Atlanta police chief Erika Shields and inflamed ongoing nationwide protests over police violence against black people. Brooks died a little more than two weeks after Floyd.
Former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged with murder and other offenses related to Brooks’s death, and he remained in custody Tuesday, county records show. Devin Brosnan, the other officer at the scene, has been charged with aggravated assault and other crimes. Lawyers for Rolfe and Brosnan have defended their clients and said the shooting was justified in a volatile situation.
At the funeral, mourners said Brooks did not deserve to die, and his death has drawn national attention. Tyler Perry paid for the service, and the 200 guests — limited because of the coronavirus — included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and the rapper and actor T.I. About 60 people outside watched the service on a large screen.
“I’m here to let his legacy and the legacy of others unheard to go on even though they’ve been silenced,” said Kimberlyé McKinney, 42, as she live-streamed the scene outside the church on her phone.
Inside the church, mourners acknowledged Brooks’s criminal history — the pastor said he was on probation — and suggested that his fear of returning to jail was one reason he fled the police that night. They said the death of Brooks and other black men and women is a plague in a nation that once enslaved black people and still discriminates against them in ways that can turn deadly. They pointed to the disproportionate rates of incarceration and law enforcement supervision of people of color, and the high rates of coronavirus deaths among black people.
In an interview with CNN in February, Brooks said he was arrested for false imprisonment and credit card fraud, and was sentenced to a year in prison. Afterward, he said, he struggled to find a job and pay his debts. The Fulton County court declined to provide information about his record over the telephone, and a court spokesman did not immediately return a call Tuesday.
Warnock said the service for Brooks was the first time the church had come together since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Despite the national attention on his death, mourners wanted most of all to remember the man they knew as “Ray.”
Family and friends described Brooks as charming and bright. He wore steel-toed cowboy books, loved barbecue and dancing to old-school music.
He rode a bicycle to work in the hot summer months for a construction job in Toledo while living in Ohio. He once walked two hours with a friend whose car had broken down so he would have company, and he chased away a man who was abusing his neighbor, a single mother, said a tearful Ambrea Mikolajczyk, who hired Brooks last year to work at the ARK construction company.
He had planned to return to that job, she said, and she said he had felt the prison system was drawing him in like “quicksand.”
Brooks’s cousin Jymaco Brooks said their family did not have much growing up, and sometimes slept 10 children to a bed, a jumble of limbs, laughter and arguments from which they always recovered.
There were a thousand things they could have said about Brooks, his cousin said, but he was a simple man with simple dreams who loved his family and wanted to raise his children. He is survived by his wife, Tomika Miller, who bounced 1-year-old daughter Dream in her lap, according to the Associated Press. He is also survived by daughters Memory, 2, and Blessing, 8, and stepson Mekai, 13.
A pair of Atlanta restaurateurs have donated a car and life insurance coverage for his family, as well as college scholarships for the children, a spokeswoman for the entrepreneurs said.
“All he wanted to do was smile, crack jokes, dance a little bit,” Brooks’s cousin said.