MINNEAPOLIS: Hundreds of mourners joined in an emotional memorial service on Thursday for George Floyd, the African American man killed by police last week, as civil rights leader Al Sharpton vowed the mass protests ignited by his death would continue until “we change the whole system of justice” in the US.
Floyd’s attorney told mourners he would find justice for the 46-year-old Floyd, who died during a May 25 arrest when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“It was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd,” said Benjamin Crump, who is representing Floyd’s family.
“It was that other pandemic. The pandemic of racism and discrimination.”
The crowd in Minneapolis stood in silence for the eight minutes and 46 seconds that officer Derek Chauvin spent with his knee on Floyd’s neck, a scene captured on videotape.
Floyd’s death has reignited long-felt anger over police killings of African Americans and unleashed a nationwide wave of civil unrest unlike any seen in the US since King’s 1968 assassination.
With demonstrations for racial justice sweeping through dozens of US cities and around the world, Sharpton said Floyd’s death would not be in vain.
“It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks,” said the 65-year-old Baptist minister.
“You changed the world George,” he said.
“We’re going to keep fighting George. We’re going to keep going until we change the whole system of justice.”
“It doesn’t matter if you wear blue jeans or a blue uniform you must pay for the crime you commit,” Sharpton said, comparing Floyd’s death to that of a black New York man, Eric Garner, who also gasped “I can’t breathe” as a police officer held him in a chokehold.
Members of Floyd’s family, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey were among several hundred people attending the service at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis.
Many of the mourners wore masks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo dropped to a knee as the hearse bearing Floyd’s remains arrived for the service, streamed live to a large crowd gathered at the flower-covered site where Floyd died.
‘Necessary and overdue’
A vigil for Floyd was also held in New York and was attended by thousands of people, including Floyd’s brother, Terrence.
“White Silence is Violence,” a sign read.
“Make America Not Embarrassing Again,” read another.
A Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, broke ranks with her party meanwhile and revealed she was struggling with whether to support President Donald Trump’s reelection.
Murkowski said her move was prompted by remarks by Trump’s former defence secretary James Mattis, who a day earlier delivered a biting assessment of the president.
Mattis called Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try.”
“Instead, he tries to divide us,” the retired Marine Corps general said.
“I thought General Mattis’ words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” Murkowski told reporters.
Her comments mark a major break with Trump within the Republican camp, which has largely held together through various crises including his impeachment and current threat to use military force against protests.
Asked if she would support Trump in November’s election, Murkowski said: “I am struggling with it.”
Three of the four Minneapolis police officers who arrested Floyd for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill made their first court appearance on Thursday to face charges of aiding and abetting his murder.
Bail was set at US$1 million each.
The fourth policeman, Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and appeared before a judge last week.
‘Cannot stop the call of history’
Democratic Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr to fight segregation, echoed Sharpton’s hope that Floyd’s death could pave the way for “greater change”.
“This feels and looks so different,” the 80-year-old civil rights icon told “CBS This Morning”.
“It is so much more massive and all inclusive.”
Lewis, who was brutally beaten on several occasions during the 1960s civil rights protests, condemned Trump’s threat to use military force against demonstrators.
“I think it would be a serious mistake on the part of president Trump to use the military to stop orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protests,” Lewis said.
“You cannot stop, cannot stop the call of history.”
While condemning Floyd’s death, Trump has adopted a tough stance towards the protesters, saying they include many “bad people” and calling on governors to “dominate the streets”.
Trump has raised the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty troops to quell the unrest but his own defence secretary, Mark Esper, said Wednesday that should only be a “last resort”.
New barriers were being erected outside the White House on Thursday as the protests for racial justice and police reform entered a 10th day.
Some of the protests were marred by rioting and looting in the early days but they have been mostly peaceful since then.
Curfews imposed in Los Angeles and Washington were lifted on Thursday.