The funeral service in Houston for the slain 46-year-old becomes a major national event. Thousands pay their last respects to him.
The coffin of George Floyd at the Houston Memorial Gardens cemetery Photo: Bob Daemmrich/dpa
A halo now hovers above the head of George Floyd. On his shoulders are angel wings. On his face is the broad grin – between shy and challenging – that distinguished him during his lifetime.
The several-square-foot drawing of the "gentle giant," as friends called him, hangs on the front wall of the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston’s Third Ward. His body rests in the gilded casket in front of the altar.
"It could have been any of us," says a friend of the dead man at the solemn farewell service for one of the latest victims of racist police violence in the U.S. to date. A collective groan fills the church. The organist punctuates it with notes.
The relatives in the first rows are dressed in white. On some of their masks are emblazoned the last words of the deceased: "I can’t breathe" – I can’t breathe. Seated directly behind the children, nephews and nieces, siblings, aunts and uncles are members of George Floyd’s new family.
They are relatives of other unarmed black Americans killed by police – including Michael Brown of Ferguson (2014), Eric Garner of New York (2014), Botham Jean of Dallas (2018) and Pamela Turner of Baytown (2019).
The funeral service is a national political event. It will be televised live. Most speakers did not learn of George Floyd’s existence until after his death. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who had a private audience with the family the day before, plays a video in which he promises, "We can heal the wounds of this nation."
Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee promises there will be no more police brutality against African Americans. Prominent black preacher Al Sharpton denounces the "viciousness" at the top of the country in his eulogy, without mentioning the president’s name.
And civil rights activist and preacher William Lawson, who is in a wheelchair, draws an arc from Jesus, "who came into the world in a stable," to George Floyd, "from the ghetto," in his speech to the mourners. The old man, who was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, hopes that this time the protest movement will stay. And that this time it can prevail.
Houston, where George Floyd spent most of his life, is his final stop. After the funeral service, he will be buried next to his mother late Tuesday afternoon. It was for her that the 46-year-old had called out when he could barely breathe.
His agonizing end under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis has sparked the largest anti-racism movement in years. Demonstrations calling for "Justice for Floyd" have taken place in all 50 U.S. states.
Some demonstrations have been attended by more than 50,000 people – including an unusually large number of white Americans who vow: "We will never be silent again." Several new bills have been introduced in Congress to curb police violence.
The majority on the Minneapolis City Council wants to abolish police altogether. And Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, promises at the funeral service that he will ban chokeholds and other excessive force.
Houston is a liberal city with a population more mixed than any other major U.S. city. But police violence is rampant in Houston, too. In the weeks leading up to George Floyd’s death, police officers there killed six people – most of whom were Latino and African American.
At the funeral service at the Fountain of Praise Church, mostly black relatives and celebrities have gathered. Gospel singers come forward between speeches. An orchestra and choir accompany them.
Only two speakers are white. Besides the electioneering Biden, who has joined from the basement of his home in Delaware, it is Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston. "Everyone would have understood if you didn’t want white people here today," he tells the mourners. "Instead, you chose to come together". For that, the congregation’s white pastor gets a round of applause.
George Floyd was an "ordinary man" say mourners. He was in prison and then turned his life around. Played basketball and football with youths from Houston’s Third Ward. Sang in a church. Drove a truck.
Changed the world
Then, for a new job, he moved to Minneapolis. Before his casket was taken to the Fountain of Praise Church, thousands of people paid their last respects. First at a funeral service at a Minneapolis university. Then at a church in Raeford, North Carolina, where he was born.
"My daddy changed the world," George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna, who lives in Houston, told the Democratic presidential candidate. At the funeral service in Houston, older and younger brothers of the dead man take to the microphone. One of them thanks those who demonstrated in Europe and Africa, saying, "I now have brothers and sisters all over the world."
A young woman holds up her left arm in a clenched fist in the gesture of the Black Power movement. Then George Floyd’s niece Brooke Williams takes the floor. The young woman goes on the offensive against the U.S. president with clear words without calling him by name. "Some people want to make America great again," she says, "But when has America ever been great?". The niece wants to fight against racism – as long as she can breathe.