MINNEAPOLIS — One after another, the dignitaries filed past the casket of George Floyd, which shone gold under the lights of a darkened sanctuary in downtown Minneapolis.
All of them had come to take part in an emotional farewell for Floyd, the 46-year-old father whose killing in police custody set off a wave of national protests that has continued.
Thursday’s somber service at North Central University stood in sharp relief to much of the week that had proceeded it, with massive demonstrations in dozens of cities, some of which were forcefully broken up by police launching tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray into crowds of peaceful protesters.
The memorial service was an opportunity to celebrate Floyd’s life. But it was also a call for accountability — not only for Floyd’s death, but for the nation’s long-standing history of racial injustice and police brutality.
“It was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd, I want to make it clear,” family attorney Ben Crump told the crowd, referring to the fact that Floyd’s autopsy report showed that he had recovered from a coronavirus infection last month. “It was that other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America — that pandemic of racism and discrimination — that killed George Floyd.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the civil rights organization National Action Network, said Floyd’s death was emblematic of the oppression black Americans have faced since the nation’s founding.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” Sharpton said. “Ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be, is you kept your knee on our neck.”
“We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck,” he said. “We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck.”
What happened to Floyd “happens every day in this country — in education, in health services and in every area of American life,” Sharpton continued. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’ ”
Sharpton used the occasion to announce a planned march on Washington in late August, led by families of black people who have died because of police violence. The demonstration would come 57 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Floyd’s memorial service — the first of several that are scheduled, including upcoming gatherings in North Carolina and Texas — comes a day after authorities upgraded murder charges against the former Minneapolis police officer who pinned Floyd to the ground by his neck and charged three other former officers with aiding and abetting the killing. All four officers have been fired.
On Thursday, as mourners gathered to remember Floyd, Hennepin County District Judge Paul R. Scoggin set bail at $750,000 apiece with conditions, or $1,000,000 without, for former officers Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng. Conditions of their bail included signing an extradition waiver, as well as surrendering firearms and concealed carry permits.
Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin is scheduled to appear before a judge on Monday.
Hours before Floyd’s memorial began on Thursday, a hearse carrying his body arrived at the university. 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 casket was brought into large sanctuary and positioned before a small stage. Above it, a screen showed an image of the large mural bearing Floyd’s name and face.
Pieces of paper around the room marked where invitees would sit, each spaced in an attempt at social distancing. Among them were Democratic public officials including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, along with actor and director Tyler Perry and actors Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart.
In the lobby, attendees were greeted by security guards and volunteers spaced several feet apart, as well as large containers of hand sanitizer.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those who arrived early to pay his respects at Floyd’s casket. As the civil rights leader 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 casket, her head bowed.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) knelt at the casket for several minutes. His body shook, and he appeared to be crying.
There were smiles and tears as the mourners remembered the man whose death has fueled a national outcry for change.
He grew up as part of a large family in Houston’s Third Ward, raised by a single mother in a home that was short on money but “full of love,” his younger brother Rodney Floyd said. The kids made banana and mayonnaise sandwiches and handwashed their socks and underwear in the kitchen sink, he recalled.
Those 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’s hearts,” 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.”
His nephew, George Floyd, who was named after his uncle, recalled how much he loved the NBA player LeBron James. He recalled the phone ringing instantly after the Cleveland Cavaliers finally defeated the Golden State Warriors to win the championship in 2016.
It was his uncle, shouting in excitement.
“I feel like I won the championship,” Floyd told him, his nephew recalled.
Outside the sanctuary and across Minneapolis, others stopped to listen, mourn and bid Floyd farewell.
“We’re hoping this will be the catalyst that things begin to change,” said Tracy Wesley, funeral director of Estes Funeral Chapel, who had joined the throng that gathered outside Floyd’s memorial service. Welsey said he has planned funeral ceremonies for 35 years, too many of them for black men gone too soon.
Albert Ettinga, an immigrant from Cameroon, brought his entire family from Forest Lake, a suburb about 20 minutes from the Twin Cities. He said Floyd’s plea — “I can’t breathe” — has kept him up at night.
“I don’t understand why this happened behind my backyard,” Ettinga said. “I ask myself, what part of my color or what part of my body that some people don’t like?”
As an immigrant, he said he is used to America shaping the narrative of what the world should look like. He hopes to see this moment can inspire an end to the mistreatment of black people in the world.
“I believe that history has begun in Minneapolis — the world is listening,” he said, his 18-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son nearby. “I have kids that were born in this country, I have to really start fighting for them, and hopefully they can rewrite history themselves.”
Several blocks away, in the Fades of Gray barbershop, 49-year-old Bennie Henderson watched the service on a nearby television as he got a haircut, marveling at the ripple effects Floyd’s death has had on his city and on the country.
“The turnout has been something that’s just, beyond my scope, beyond what I could have imagined,” said Henderson, who is black. “None of this had to happen.”
Toward the end of the service Thursday, Sharpton called on those in attendance to stand in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time Chauvin had kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.
As the minutes passed, some in the room began to sob. One man, his voice muffled by a face mask, called out, “I can’t breathe!” Most stood solemnly with their heads bowed, the same way thousands of others had done in observing the same silence Thursday in New York, Washington and elsewhere.
“They had enough time,” Sharpton said of the police officers as the time concluded. Enough time to make different choices, he meant.
“Now,” he said, “what are we going to do with our time?”
People put their fists in the air and watched quietly as Floyd’s casket, blanketed in roses, rolled away in a hearse.
Robert Klemko, Tarkor Zehn, Hannah Knowles, Marissa Iati and Ben Guarino contributed to this report.