The family of George Floyd and invitees gathered amid sobs and bubbling rage on Thursday afternoon in Minneapolis for the first of three memorial services across the country planned to mark the violent death of the 46-year-old African American man under the knee of a white police officer on 25 May.
The service began with a scripture reading and a prayer urging healing, and saw the Rev Al Sharpton deliver a powerful eulogy calling for white America to “get off our necks”.
George Floyd’s family wept openly and wiped their eyes as people raised their arms in the air and a singer broke into Amazing Grace.
In a eulogy packed with passion, anger and the promise of hope, alongside a stab at Donald Trump, Sharpton said the knee pressing down on Floyd’s neck was the story of black Americans for generations.
“The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” he said. “We could do whatever anyone else could do. But we couldn’t get your knee off our neck … What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country in education and 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.”
Amid the fury of Sharpton’s demands and the heart-rending glimpses into Floyd’s life offered by his family, it was the nearly nine minutes of standing in silence that tested the mourners.
Each second dragging by served as a reminder to stunned relatives and friends of what seemed a near eternity that a police officer’s knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck, squeezing the life out of him. Sharpton had warned the family and other mourners at the first of three memorial services how difficult these eight minutes and 46 seconds were going to be.
“As you go through these long eight minutes, think about what George was going through, laying there for those eight minutes, begging for his own life …”
“We can’t let this go. We can’t keep living like this,” he said.
Other mourners at North Central University in Minneapolis, where the memorial was held, stared up at a brightly lit replica of the mural of Floyd painted on a wall at the site of his death and hanging behind his golden coffin. Each passing second also served as a reminder of how long the other police officers had to intervene as Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe and then cried out for his mother.
Since Floyd was killed by police on 25 May, crowds have gathered day and night in Minneapolis for huge protests – marred by bouts of violent unrest and looting – and to pay tribute at the site where Floyd was pinned to the street during an arrest attempt.
North Central University announced a George Floyd scholarship for young black Americans and called for other universities to do likewise.
Floyd’s family had filed in to the service to the emotional pull of a gospel choir as they passed a golden coffin piled high with flowers. A photo of Floyd wearing a black and gold striped hoodie was propped next to the casket.
His family sat behind their masks in the centre of the sanctuary at the campus in downtown Minneapolis, accompanied by a sprinkling of civil rights activists including Martin Luther King III and Jesse Jackson, the actor Kevin Hart, and Minnesota’s leading politicians including US senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
The family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, set the tone for much of the service as he described the scenes playing out on the video of police officer Derek Chauvin killing Floyd as “torture and evil”.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Floyd had tested positive for coronavirus in April but Crump said that wasn’t what killed him.
“It was that other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America, that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd,” he thundered.
For a few minutes, the mood shifted as members of Floyd’s family spoke to remind the world of who he was. Philonise Floyd described his love for his elder brother.
“We didn’t have much. Our mom did what she could. We would sleep in the same bed,” he said.
Philonise described his brother as inspiring. “It was amazing, everywhere you go and see how people cling to him. They wanted to be around him. George, he was like a general. Every day you walk outside and there’s a line of people … wanting to greet him and wanting to have fun with him. Guys that was doing drugs, like smokers and homeless people. You could tell because when they spoke to George they felt like they was the president because that’s how he made you feel.”
Then came Sharpton’s fury. Suddenly the memorial service was alive with bitter history.
As Sharpton spoke, the tears gave way to roars of approval. The mourners let go of each other to rise to their feet and cheer Sharpton on. Then he came to Donald Trump and his photo-op with a bible at a church close to the White House this week.
“Held the bible in his hand. I’ve been preaching since I was a little boy. I never seen anyone hold a bible like that,” Sharpton quipped.
“First of all, we cannot use bibles as a prop. And for those of you who have agendas that are not about justice, his family will not let you use George as a prop.”
But Sharpton also said he was “more hopeful today than ever”.
“When I looked this time and saw marchers were in some cases young whites outnumbering the black marchers, I know that it is a different time and a different season. When I looked and saw people in Germany marching for George Floyd, it’s a different time and different season. When they went in front of the parliament in London, England, and said it’s a different time and a different season, I come to tell you, America this is the time of building accountability in the criminal justice system.”
Sharpton said he remembered going to a march years ago and being confronted by a white woman who looked him in the face and said: “Nigger, go home”. This week he came face to face with a young white girl.
“I braced myself and she looked at me and said: “No justice, no peace,” Sharpton recalled to the approval of the mourners. “This is the time. We won’t stop. We’ll keep going until we change the whole system of justice.”
Protesters also gathered outside the courthouse where the three officers, charged with aiding and abetting the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, made their first court appearance around the same time.
The three officers, Thomas Lane, J Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, were fired last week and charged earlier this week after the state took over the case from the county prosecutor. Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, and who was also fired, was charged with third-degree murder last week and had the charge upgraded to second-degree murder on Wednesday by the Minnesota attorney general.
Thousands of people who had joined protests over the past week to demand justice for Floyd were asked to keep away from the service, amid concerns about social distancing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the start of Thursday’s official memorial event, Floyd’s body lay in a golden casket surrounded by white flowers. His portrait was to one side, and a brightly lit street mural dominated the back of the auditorium at North Central University, behind the choir and band.
Floyd’s son, brother and sister were among those attending.
Anthony Thornton, a 70-year-old African American computer hardware designer, arrived hours ahead of the service and was the first to set himself up in a beach chair outside.
“I have family in [Washington] DC,” he said.
“They sent me a brand new phone and said, Dad, go out, bring us some videos. So I’m out here to do that and at the end of the day to say I found some peace out of all of this. There’s a lot of destruction all over town,” said Thornton adding, by the bye, that he holds the Guinness world record for longest distance a human being has walked backwards in 24 hours.
Does he think that the huge protests across the country will bring about significant change?
“No I don’t. I know some form of justice will eventually happen. But it will take many years. We could have the same situation next month,” he said.
Also present was Maudeline St Jean, a nurse who brought her two sons.
“When I saw that video of George Floyd’s death, it was so horrific I found myself crying. It’s like a horror movie,” she said.
“I came to show support for the family, and the fight for black freedom and ending the suffering of black people. I told my boys, you guys are coming with me. You have to be in this. It’s not going to change if we sit home and watch it on television. We have to be a part of this part.”
After the service, Floyd’s body will be flown to Raeford, North Carolina, where Floyd was born, for a public viewing and private family service on Saturday.
Another public viewing will be held in Houston, Texas, where Floyd grew up and lived much of his life, before a private burial there.