MINNEAPOLIS — For nearly three months, Americans have avoided most collective outpourings of grief as fears of the coronavirus converted funerals of lost friends and family into painfully socially distanced affairs.
But hundreds of people were expected to turn up Thursday for a memorial service for George Floyd, a man whose recent death in police custody has elicited such outrage across the country that it has pushed fears of a global pandemic into the background.
“We have to be united, even with COVID,” said Yousif Hussein, 29, who was planning to attend the memorial for Floyd, a black man who died last week after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.
“I have to show solidarity with George Floyd,” Hussein said outside the corner market in midtown Minneapolis where Floyd made his final gasps — for help, for his mother and for air, a plea that has since become a painful refrain for racial and social justice in America: “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd’s death came after a deli employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. A video of his last moments, as three other uniformed officers did not intervene, set off protests in dozens of cities and led to criminal charges this week against all four police officers. At least six people have died in violence connected to the protests.
On Wednesday, the Hennepin County medical examiner released Floyd’s autopsy report, which revealed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus in early April, although it gave no indication that the virus factored into his death. The news came as a gut punch, a painful reminder of how the virus has hit the black community in Minnesota, and throughout the nation, in disproportionate numbers.
Thursday’s memorial service is scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. local time in a large sanctuary at North Central University in Minneapolis. Other services for Floyd were planned for Saturday in Raeford, North Carolina, where some of his family lives, and Monday in Houston, where he lived for many years.
The service, to be led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, comes a day after enhanced charges were announced against the police officer who wedged his knee onto Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, as well as the new charges against three other officers who participated in the arrest. All have been fired.
The state of Minnesota has filed a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis police force over Floyd’s death, pledging to investigate whether the department has engaged in systemic discriminatory practices.
Sharpton said he would announce a new social movement at Thursday’s memorial service and would call for federal legislation aimed at putting an end to racial injustice by the police.
On Wednesday, Quincy Mason, the son of George Floyd, for the first time visited the site where his father was pinned to the ground, dropping to one knee on a chalk drawing depicting Floyd’s body with wings and a crown and the words, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
“My father should not have been killed like this,” Mason said later that day.
The mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, said Floyd’s death was a moment for the city to come together and address “systemic racism head on.”
“George Floyd’s life was defined by peace and love for his family and friends,” the mayor said in a statement. “But he was denied mercy in Minneapolis when our officers failed to recognize George’s humanity. That can’t be where his story ends.”
Floyd had been a star football and basketball player in high school in Houston, moving to Minneapolis about five years ago. Family and friends described him as happy, careful not to judge and easy to talk to.
When he returned to Houston for his mother’s funeral two years ago, he told a cousin that Minneapolis had come to feel like home.
The city he adopted already is filled with tributes and memorials; the names of other black men and women who have been killed by police officers across the country are scrawled in large pink, blue, yellow and green chalk letters on the street where Floyd was arrested.
The display is alongside a place where many of those passing through the now-famous neighborhood have gathered in recent days. J.T. McReynolds, 11, had memorized all of the names, rattling them off in a tiny voice this week as he sought shade in a car parked under a tree while he and his parents took a break from a day of protesting.
“Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin,” the boy began, and then paused. “It’s just hurtful. We’re trying to be peaceful and get justice for George Floyd.”
Plans were being finalized at the last minute for the memorial service at a chapel that holds several hundred people. Social distancing was expected to be in place for mourners.
The service will be for family, friends and invitees of the Floyd family, according to the university’s website. Local media planned to livestream the event, and many people demonstrating on Wednesday said they had intended to gather in an area outside the chapel to pay respects during the service.
Besides Sharpton, Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who is representing some of Floyd’s family, also will speak.
Among those planning to attend the memorial service is Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when a New York police officer placed him in a fatal chokehold. His last words, “I can’t breathe” — repeated years later in another city by Floyd — galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It just feels like I’m coming to my son’s funeral again,” Carr said on Wednesday in Minneapolis. “This young man was crying for his mother at the end. That was like my son echoing from the grave saying, ‘Mama, you’ve got to do something. They’re still killing us.’ ”