HOUSTON — George Floyd died at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. A thousand miles to the south, in the Texas city where he was raised, two rows of police officers saluted as his coffin went past.
Hours before Floyd’s funeral began at a southwest Houston church, uniformed officers stood between the hearse and the front doors. As relatives and friends pushed the gold coffin with blue trimming into the church, the officers raised their hands in a show of respect.
Floyd’s funeral and the public viewing that preceded it a day earlier have been a counterpoint to the fury that his death touched off in cities across America. Floyd, who grew up in a tough public housing complex in Houston’s predominantly black 3rd Ward, was considered a native son, and the tone adopted by protesters, activists, elected officials and police officers has been one of honoring a grieving Houston family.
Inside the Fountain of Praise church, Floyd, 46, the emblem of an international movement whose name has been chanted by thousands of people since his death, was remembered as the son, brother, uncle and father that he was in life.
George Perry Floyd Jr. was born in North Carolina but grew up in the Cuney Homes housing complex in Houston. He was a 1993 graduate of Jack Yates High School, where he played on the basketball team as a 6-foot-6 power forward “able to dunk with both hands.” And he was a father of five and grandfather of two, according to the funeral program.
His relatives referred to him as “Superman.”
“The world knows George Floyd,” said Kathleen McGee, one of his aunts, surrounded by relatives, all dressed in white. “I know him as Perry Jr. He was a pesky little rascal, but we all loved him.”
Like the funerals of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, Floyd’s funeral became a moment of both national reckoning and mourning, as black leaders and Floyd’s family celebrated his life and denounced the brutality of his death.
The funeral aired live on broadcast and cable television, and as it began at noon, the New York Stock Exchange went silent for eight minutes, 46 seconds — the length of time a Minneapolis police officer held Floyd’s neck under his knee before he died. It was the longest moment of silence on the stock exchange floor in its 228-year history.
In Houston, speaker after speaker invoked the political moment born out of what happened in Minneapolis.
“This was not just a tragedy. It was a crime,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who delivered the eulogy.
“We must commit to this family — all of these families, all of his children, grandchildren and all — that until these people pay for what they did, that we’re going to be there with them,” Sharpton said. “Because lives like George’s will not matter until somebody pays the cost for taking their lives.”
Sharpton admonished the country’s political and business leaders for belatedly saying they are sorry for mistreatment of African Americans. “Don’t apologize — give Colin Kaepernick a job back,” he said, referring to the former NFL quarterback. “We don’t want an apology. We want him repaired.”
The service came after five days of public memorials in Minneapolis, North Carolina and Houston, and two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer was caught on video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes before Floyd died.
On Monday, a public viewing in Houston drew nearly 6,400 people, including Gov. Greg Abbott, nurses fresh from work dressed in scrubs, new fathers holding babies and Floyd’s high school classmates. Following Tuesday’s service, he was to be buried at the Houston Memorial Gardens in a grave next to his mother, Larcenia Floyd, who died in 2018.
In a video message, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, offered his condolences to the family, saying he understood the weight of grieving in public. Biden, who has often connected to people through grief after suffering deep losses in his own life, spent time with the Floyd family in private on Monday.
“No child should have to ask the question that too many black children have had to ask for generations: ‘Why? Why is Daddy gone?’ ” Biden said in the video. “When there is justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston announced from the altar that he would sign an executive order on Tuesday to ban police chokeholds and strangleholds. Among other things, the order would also require police officers to give a warning before shooting.
“We honor him today because when he took his last breath, the rest of us will now be able to breathe,” said Turner, who is black.
No one mentioned President Donald Trump, but Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, said that the next person in the country’s highest office needs to tackle racial inequality. And Brooklyn Williams, a young niece of Floyd’s, called for an end to hate crimes.
“Someone said, ‘Make America great again,’ but when has America ever been great?” she said. “America, it is time for a change!”
Sharpton began his eulogy with a warning that people — especially elected officials — tend to forget about police killings before officers have been brought to trial. Often, he said, bad police officers are “protected by wickedness in high places.”
The officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His bail was set at up to $1.25 million in a court appearance on Monday. He and three other officers who participated in the arrest have been fired; the other men were arrested on lesser charges.
Sharpton promised to be back in Minneapolis when the trial starts, and to march on Washington “by the tens of thousands” on the anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August.
One by one, Sharpton named the relatives of other black men and women who have been killed by the police and asked them to stand. Other mourners stood, too, until everyone in the sanctuary was up and clapping and the funeral of one man briefly became a funeral for all the other lives lost.
“The mother of Trayvon Martin, will you stand,” he said. “The mother of Eric Garner, will you stand. The sister of Botham Jean, will you stand. The family of Pamela Turner, here in Houston, will you stand. The father of Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri, will you stand. The father of Ahmaud Arbery, will you stand.
“All of these families came to stand with this family because they know better than anyone else the pain they will suffer from the loss that they have gone through,” Sharpton said.
Most mourners and public officials attending the funeral wore face masks. But the coronavirus pandemic at times seemed an afterthought. Among the hundreds of people inside the sanctuary and outside in the parking lot, people hugged, shook hands and passed funeral programs and business cards.
“I see that you all have destroyed all laws of social distancing,” joked the Rev. William Lawson, pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
After the service, Floyd’s body was borne out of the church toward the final, private observances at the cemetery. His body was borne by horse-drawn carriage along the final stretch of the route, with the public permitted to gather along the roadside and watch.
“You called for Mama,” Sharpton said during his eulogy. “We’re going to lay your body next to hers.”
A group of activists and Houston-area residents stood outside the church throughout the funeral — a much smaller gathering than the thousands who flocked to the church on Monday for the visitation.
Before the service began, a young man and woman walked up to the bouquets of flowers left by mourners at the church’s front doors, beneath a framed picture of Floyd. They knelt and prayed, and the young man raised his fist high.
The man, Arion Ford, 27, a community organizer from the St. Louis area who is a friend of the Floyd family, choked back tears as he stood up.
“I was praying for Mr. Floyd,” Ford said. “In my mind, I’m thinking, that could be my father, that could be my cousin, my brother. It could happen to any one of us. We are fed up, as you see out on the streets.”
His friend, Trisha Boyle, 29, a community activist also from St. Louis, said Floyd’s death had started a movement.
“We go to school,” she said. “I have two master’s degrees. Arion is studying to be a lawyer. We do the American dream. There’s this one piece that’s missing — we’re murdered. We’re murdered if we’re jogging. We’re murdered if we just so happen to have a counterfeit bill. Is that a death penalty?”
Later, as Floyd’s coffin was wheeled out of the church, a man standing in the back of the group of onlookers shouted, “We will breathe!” Another yelled, “Get your knee off our neck!”