The family and friends of George Floyd, the unarmed black man killed while in custody of Minneapolis police last week, remembered him on Thursday as an inclusive, joyful and optimistic brother, cousin and uncle, as hundreds of others gathered to pay their respects following more than a week of mass unrest over his death.
“That’s amazing to me that he touched so many people’s hearts, you know, because he’s been touching our hearts,” Philonise Floyd said at the service describing his brother, whom he called Perry, as a powerful, friendly presence who could make anybody he spoke to feel “like they’re the president.”
Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams described his uncle as a “real genuine person” akin to a father figure growing up, detailing his love for LeBron James and his constant positive attitude.
But when family members were finished memorializing Floyd, the injustice of his death was the underlying thread of a fiery eulogy delivered on Thursday by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights icon, who told the crowd that “I want us to not sit here and act like we had a funeral on the schedule,” because “George Floyd should not be among the deceased.”
“He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American justice malfunction,” Sharpton continued. “He died because … there hasn’t been the corrective behavior that has taught this country that if you commit a crime it doesn’t matter if you wear blue jeans or a blue uniform, you must pay for the crime you commit.”
Floyd was killed on Memorial Day when a since-fired Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned the handcuffed Floyd to the ground with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes, according to viral video of the deadly encounter. The video shows Floyd and bystanders pleading for help, with Floyd exclaiming that he couldn’t breathe before losing consciousness.
His death set off unrest that has extended for more than a week and reached around the globe.
In some cities in the U.S., the protests over Floyd’s death descended into violence, with looters setting fire to businesses while police and national guardsmen in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets and clashed with protesters, as well as members of the media covering the demonstrations.
The memorial service, which was carried live in its entirety on national cable networks, came less than 24 hours after additional charges were announced in the case. On Wednesday, charges against Chauvin were upgraded from third-degree murder to second-degree murder, while three other officers involved in Floyd’s death were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
The state of Minnesota and the Department of Justice have also announced civil rights investigations into the episode and the Minneapolis Police Department.
As Sharpton spoke in the sanctuary of North Central University, whose president on Thursday announced a new scholarship in Floyd’s name, a giant reproduction of the mural painted at the site of Floyd’s fatal encounter with police hung overhead, depicting Floyd’s face in the middle of a sunflower, adorned with the words “I can breathe now.”
A number of marquee names attended the service, including stalwarts of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Minnesota politicians, including Gov. Tim Walz, Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith; and entertainers such as Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Master P, Will Packer, T.I. and Tiffany Haddish.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, whose 2014 death after being put in a chokehold by New York police and whose cries of “I can’t breathe” on viral video first fortified the Black Lives Matter movement, was also in attendance.
The bulk of Sharpton’s nearly 40-minute eulogy served as an indictment of systemic racism in the United States, with Sharpton casting Floyd as an apt metaphor for the black experience in America for centuries.
He described the first time he went to the place of Floyd’s death last Thursday.
“When I stood at that spot, the reason it got to me is George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks. Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” he said, a refrain that drew shouts of agreement and a standing ovation from the audience.
“What happened to George Floyd happens every day in this country … in every area of American life,” Sharpton asserted. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks.”
“A man comes out of a single-parent home, educates himself, rises up and becomes the president of the United States. You ask him for his birth certificate because you can’t take your knee off our neck!” he exclaimed at one point, a pointed reference to former President Barack Obama and the birther conspiracy theory popularized by President Donald Trump.
“The reason why we’re marching all over the world is because we were like George, we couldn’t breathe,” Sharpton continued. “Not because there was something wrong with our lungs but you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck. We don’t want no favors. Just get up off of us and we can be and do whatever we can be.”
The dig was one of several aimed at Trump during Thursday’s service by Sharpton, who is also somewhat of a kingmaker in Democratic politics.
The upheaval of the last week has drawn the support of every living former president, each of whom has spoken out against racial inequities in the United States, expressed condolences over Floyd’s death and applauded peaceful protesters calling for systemic change.
It has also become a point of contention for the current occupant of the White House, as Trump has faced criticism over his attempts to militarize the response to protesters, pressuring governors to call in the National Guard and deriding those who declined to do so as “weak.” Trump has been chided for dismissing protesters as members of anti-fascist groups while skirting over protesters’ complaints of systemic racism throughout the country and, in particular, among the nation’s police force.
Sharpton’s eulogy was littered with swipes at the president, whom he likened to someone who forgot to set their watch forward for daylight saving time.
“There have been protests all over the world,” noted Sharpton, before launching into what appeared to be a pointed rebuke of the president. “Some have looted and done other things. None in this family condones looting or violence, but the thing I want us to be real cognizant of is, there’s a difference between those calling for peace and those calling for quiet.”
He took aim at Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and at the criticism leveled at the commander in chief over the last week.
“The reason y’all late catching up to what this protest means is because you didn’t turn your clock forward. Talk about make America great. Great for who and great when? We’re going to make America great for everybody for the first time,” he said, eliciting laughter and applause from the crowd.
“I saw somebody standing in front of the church the other day that had been boarded up as a result of violence. Held the Bible up in his hand,” Sharpton said, referring to the president’s widely condemned photo-op on Monday at a historic church near the White House that caught fire during a night of protests over the weekend.
“I’ve been preaching since I was a little boy. I’ve never seen anyone hold a Bible like that, but I’ll leave that alone. But since he held a Bible, if he’s watching us today, I would like him to open that Bible,” Sharpton continued, admonishing the president for using the Bible “as a prop.”
He added: “And for those that have agendas that are not about justice, his family will not let you use George as a prop”
As the service continued, Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on Twitter to express “sympathies and prayers” on behalf of himself and second lady Karen Pence, reiterating the president’s pledge that “justice will be served” in his case. The president himself made no public mention of Floyd’s memorial service on Thursday.
But Sharpton also expressed hope that Floyd’s death and the ensuing unrest might be a turning point — a sentiment echoed by others over the last week — repeatedly arguing to the crowd that “I know it’s a different time and a different season.”
The service concluded with Sharpton asking attendees to stand in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Chauvin was videotaped with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
“Somebody said, ‘Reverend, eight minutes is a long time,’” Sharpton said. “That meant it was long enough for the police to understand what they were doing. It meant it was long enough for one of them three cops to stop what was going on. It means it was long enough for whatever this officer had in mind for him to rethink.”
During the period of silence, at least one cable network, MSNBC, showed live split-screen video of mourners gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, in New York City and at the site of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“As you go through these long eight minutes, think about what George was going through laying there for those eight minutes.” Sharpton continued. “Begging for his life. I heard someone say narrating his own death. We can’t let this go. We can’t keep living like this.”