HOUSTON: Family and friends gathered to lay George Floyd to rest in his hometown of Houston on Tuesday, with gospel and poignant tributes capping the long farewell to the 46-year-old African American whose death ignited global protests against police brutality and racism.
Politicians, civil rights activists and celebrities joined in sharing memories of the man they called a “gentle giant” before his golden casket was to be conveyed by horse-drawn carriage to his final resting place by his mother’s grave.
Though it was a solemn occasion, The Fountain of Praise Church in southern Houston was filled with joyous music and words of fond remembrance for a kind and gifted man, whose savage death galvanized a worldwide movement.
“George Floyd changed the world. And we are going to make the world know that he made a difference,” Al Green, the local US congressman, told the congregation.
“We have a responsibility to each one of them to make sure that we do not walk away today after having celebrated his life and not taking the next step... to assure the future generations that this won’t happen again,” he added.
Floyd died on May 25 as a white Minneapolis officer pressed a knee into his neck for almost nine minutes, his pleas of “I can’t breathe” becoming a rallying cry for protesters.
His death has come to embody fractured relations between communities of color and police in the US and beyond as tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets.
The Fountain of Praise was the final stage in a series of ceremonies paying tribute to Floyd before he is buried.
In a day that capped more than two weeks of tension around the country, the theme inside the building was one of peace and hope as family members and friends took to the podium to share their grief, with civil rights leader the Reverend Al Sharpton due to deliver the eulogy.
Flowers were piled high outside the entrance to the church, attended by part of his family, before a portrait of Floyd whose open casket was visited by more than 6,000 well-wishers on Monday.
Some 500 guests — all masked due the coronavirus pandemic — filled the church, including actors Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, as well as boxing champion Floyd Mayweather who is reportedly paying all expenses.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has visited the family, offered words of condolence to Floyd’s children in a video message urging them to “change the world for the better” in their father’s name.
“Today now is the time, the purpose, the season to listen and heal,” said Biden, who suffered his own tragedy with the deaths of a wife and two children.
“Now is time for racial justice... Because when there’s justice for George Floyd we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America.”
The funeral comes after the Minneapolis authorities pledged to dismantle and rebuild the police department in the city where Floyd died during an arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Derek Chauvin, the 44-year-old white officer who was filmed pressing his knee on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck, faces up to 40 years if convicted on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
His bail was set on Monday at $1 million with conditions, or $1.25 million without.
Three other policemen involved in Floyd’s arrest are charged with aiding and abetting his murder. All four officers have been fired.
The arrest was caught on amateur video played in all corners of the world over the past two weeks.
Floyd was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Houston’s predominantly African American Third Ward where he was remembered as a towering high school athlete and good-natured friend.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets for two weeks of the most sweeping US protests for racial justice since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The demonstrations have been marred by several nights of violence that focused attention at home and abroad on police brutality as numerous videos have emerged that allegedly show incidents of heavy-handed policing.
The Democrats have introduced legislation in both chambers of Congress, that they hope will make it easier to prosecute officers for abuse, and rethink how they are recruited and trained.
Some US cities have already begun to embrace reforms — starting with bans on the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
But it is unclear what support the reform bill might find in the Republican-controlled Senate — or whether President Donald Trump would sign such legislation into law.