George Floyd’s memorial a rallying cry for national police reform

Family members of George Floyd stand for 8 minutes 46 seconds of silence at his memorial in Minneapolis.

Hundreds of mourners filled the streets surrounding North Central University in downtown Minneapolis Thursday for the first of three memorials for George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police officers set off protests in every state in America.

Inside the Frank J. Lindquist Sanctuary, Floyd’s siblings and cousins, giving brief remembrances, described him as a generous, welcoming person, taking after his mother, whom he used to dance and cook with and for whom he cried out as then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck.

“My mom used to take in other kids, and most of them were George’s friends,” said Philonise Floyd, George’s brother. “They wanted to stay with her. They loved her.”

Shareeduh Tate, Floyd’s cousin, said he could make anybody feel like they were special, and then asked the audience to think of his five children and granddaughter and pray for them.

“I ask that you pray for us as we go along this marathon to make sure that justice is served,” Tate said.

With national and international media broadcasting, the service was both a celebration of his life and a call to action that would give meaning to his death at the hands of the state.

“We seek a broader, more transformative justice,” said Ben Crump, the Florida attorney representing the Floyd family.

Crump, quoting both Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson, told the audience by fighting for justice, they were forcing America to live up to its creed.

John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile and police reform activist, leads the crowd in chants after the memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“What we want is not two justice systems — one for white America and one for Black America. What we’re endeavoring to achieve is equal justice for the United States of America,” Crump said. “George Floyd gives us the best opportunity I have seen in a long time of reaching that high ideal this country was founded on.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, giving the eulogy, announced that the Floyd family, along with those who have also lost loved ones at the hands of police, will lead a march on Washington on Aug. 28 — the 57th anniversary of the original march on Washington lead by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —  to call for a federal policing equity law.

Sharpton also connected Floyd’s death to systemic racism in every American institution. Minnesota has among the worst racial inequalities in the nation when it comes to education, income, health and criminal prosecution.

“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country in education, in health services and in every area of American life,” Sharpton said. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”

Sharpton had the audience — some wearing face masks with Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” as a shield against the ongoing pandemic — stand for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

Floyd’s family was joined by celebrities including Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Master P and Tiffany Haddish; civil rights activists including Jesse Jackson, Nekima Levy Armstrong and Clyde Bellecourt; and the state’s top political leaders Gov. Tim Walz, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.

Requests for people to leave an empty seat beside them to allow for social distancing went largely unheeded, with people filling the first few rows and leaving the back ones empty, just another way George Floyd’s death has overshadowed the concurrent COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just want to put it on the record that it was not the coronavirus that killed George Floyd,” Crump said. “It was that other pandemic that we’re all too familiar with in America, that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd.”

Reggie Jones says he drove from South Carolina to help the family of George Floyd. He sold t-shirts outside the memorial with proceeds going to the family. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The president of North Central University, a small Christian university, announced the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship for young aspiring Black leaders — having raised $57,000 already — and challenged every university president in the country to do the same.

As the family left the service, the crowd gathered outside, applauding and chanting “George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”

Among them was Nicole Young, a probation officer from south Minneapolis, who said she has barely slept since since the video showing Floyd’s death.

“To watch that and hear that man cry out for his mom. I’m a mother, so it made my heart cringe that I could not be there to save that man,” Young said.

But, like the rest of the crowd, she was hopeful and determined that Floyd’s death would lead to change.

“We have to have justice served and we will not give up until justice prevails,” Young said. “The justice system is broken … Racism is all through the system … It’s going to be reformed after all of this.”

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.