HOUSTON – Relatives and elected leaders spoke passionately at Tuesday's funeral for George Floyd, demanding reforms and justice for a black man whose death has shaken the world.
About 500 friends, family, politicians and entertainers streamed into The Fountain of Praise church in Houston for what co-pastor Mia Wright called, "a home-going celebration of brother George Floyd's life.''
The emotional service, which rang with gospel music and calls to ensure that Floyd did not die in vain, was widely broadcast and streamed online.
“I want justice for my brother, for my big brother, that's Big Floyd,” Rodney Floyd said. “Everyone is going to remember him around the world. He's going to change the world.”
Those words were echoed throughout the service in remarks by several of the invited guests, a list that included Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Al Green.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, met Floyd's family privately Monday and referenced his 6-year-old daughter Gianna in a video presentation.
"Now is the time for racial justice,'' Biden said. "That's the answer we must give to our children when they ask, 'Why?' Because when there's justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America. And then, as you said Gianna, your daddy will have changed the world.''
Later, Lee said, "I don't know if I'll ever be able to overcome the words, 'I can't breathe.' ... "But I what I will say is the assignment of George Floyd and the purpose for me is there will be no more 8 minutes and 46 seconds of police brutality.''
Floyd's death after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes was caught on a video that triggered outrage and waves of protests – and could ultimately result in sweeping changes in the nation's justice system.
Green was among those underscoring the importance of achieving the meaningful reforms that failed to materialize after black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray died at the hands of police in previous years.
“We have a responsibility to each one of them to make sure that we do not walk away today after having celebrated his life and not taken the next step to ... assure the future generations that this won't happen again,” Green said.
Besides the prominent politicians, Floyd's brothers and niece addressed an audience mostly outfitted with masks -- some of them bearing Floyd's resemblance -- to avoid spread of the coronavirus. Early in the service, gospel singer Dray Tate performed his single "A change is gonna come'' as an artist drew a painting of Floyd's face on a large black canvas.
Two other drawings of Floyd, depicted with a halo over his head and angel wings at his back, were also prominently displayed at the stage.
In delivering the eulogy, activist Al Sharpton stressed that Floyd's death "was not just a tragedy, it was a crime,'' and he warned that, "until the law is upheld and people know they will go to jail, they're going to keep doing it because they're protected by wickedness in high places.''
A horse-drawn carriage will transport Floyd's remains the final mile to his grave site at Houston Memorial Gardens in the suburb of Pearland. He will be buried in a private ceremony alongside his mother, Larcenia "Miss Cissy" Floyd, whom he called out for as he gasped for breath, lying handcuffed on a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day.
Pearland’s Cullen Boulevard, part of the funeral procession route, was lined with crowd-control fencing as mourners began walking alongside it with lawn chairs and umbrellas to provide shade from the broiling Texas sun on a day when the heat index was expected to reach as high as 107 degrees.
Audrieka Jones, 24, walked a mile-and-a-half from where she parked to near the cemetery entrance to wait for the procession. She was heartened to see so many diverse faces also waiting along the route.
“I’m seeing more Caucasians standing up than I ever had before,” said Jones, a social worker who is black. “This is a good thing. It is definitely a good thing.”
Mariah Almack, 32, and Elyse Kizer, 27, were among the white mourners waiting for the procession. Kizer held a black heart-shaped sign reading, “George Floyd.” Almack’s sign read, “We will keep saying his name.’'
“It’s not black people’s responsibility to fix racism,” Almack said. “It’s on white people.”
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Floyd's anguished cries of "I can't breathe" have been scrawled on murals and chanted at protests nationwide as he has become a symbol of police's use of excessive force against black men.
Floyd grew up in Houston, a product of the Cuney Homes housing project – "The Bricks." Standing 6-foot-6 and known as "Big Floyd," he starred at football but struggled with grades. A series of brushes with the law grew serious in 2009, when he pleaded guilty to armed aggravated robbery and was sent to prison for four years.
After he was released in 2013, Floyd dedicated himself to helping young people avoid making the mistakes he made, friends say. He later moved to Minneapolis, and on Memorial Day a series of events took place that ended in his death, charges against four police officers and the world paying close attention.
The officers responded to a call from a teenage clerk at Cup Foods who suspected Floyd had purchased cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. Officers found Floyd in a car nearby with two other people and the confrontation began. A brutal effort by the officers to get Floyd in a police car ended in tragedy.
The reverberations have spread far beyond the arrest of those police officers, who are facing criminal charges. Confederate statues have fallen, pepper spray and chokeholds have been banned in some cities, and some cities are considering "defunding" their police departments. Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, representing the family, petitioned the United Nations to review America's police practices and racial injustice.
"On the final day of George Floyd’s homecoming, please join me in a 'moment of silence' lasting 8 minutes 46 seconds," Crump said on Twitter. "Let’s remember George and all of our other lost Black men and women — and pray for their families in this difficult time."
Contributing: Chuck Lindell, Austin American Statesman; Rick Jervis, USA TODAY