MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – Prominent civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton told mourners on Thursday that George Floyd’s fatal encounter with police and the nationwide protests his death ignited marked a reckoning for America over race and justice, demanding, “Get your knee off our necks.”
Delivering the eulogy at a memorial service inside a university chapel in Minneapolis, Sharpton said Floyd’s fate – dying at the hands of police, pinned to the ground under the knee of a white officer – symbolized a universal experience of African Americans.
“George Floyd should not be among the deceased. He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American criminal justice malfunction,” Sharpton said. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”
Sharpton led mourners in eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the amount of time Floyd lay on a Minneapolis street with a knee pressed into his neck.
In addition to hundreds who gathered inside the North Central University chapel, a crowd of hundreds more clustered outside under trees and in window sills, listening to the service broadcast over loudspeakers.
One was Zsa-Vona Williams, 36, who knew Floyd from his days working at the homeless shelter where she once lived, recalling him as a caring, friendly soul.
“He gave to and fed a lot of people. He was a gentle, peaceful person,” Williams said, adding that in death, “He has changed the world.”
The prayer service, which drew comic actors Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish as well as U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, coincided with a separate memorial tribute to Floyd in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, a major flashpoint of protests in recent days.
The day of remembrance capped nine straight nights of raucous but largely peaceful street demonstrations in Floyd’s name across the country – punctuated by sporadic arson, looting and clashes between protesters and police.
The outpouring of rage appeared to ebb on Wednesday night after prosecutors in Minneapolis elevated murder charges against one police officer jailed last week in Floyd’s May 25 death and arrested three others accused of aiding and abetting the first.
EX-COPS IN COURT
On Thursday, the three newly arrested officers – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – made their first appearance in court and were ordered to remain held on $750,000 bond each.
Their principal co-defendant, Derek Chauvin, 44, is slated to appear for his bond hearing on Monday. Chauvin is the officer seen in widely circulated video footage kneeling on Floyd’s neck as Floyd gasped for air and repeatedly groaned, “I can’t breathe,” before passing out.
The four former officers, all dismissed from the Minneapolis police department the day after their deadly confrontation with Floyd, each faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges against them.
Floyd, a Houston native who had worked security for various nightclubs, was unarmed when taken into custody outside a corner market where an employee had reported to police that a man matching his description tried to pay for cigarettes with a counterfeit bill.
His brother, Philonise Floyd, recounted to mourners in Minneapolis that he and his siblings grew up so poor they washed their socks and underwear in the sink and dried them in the oven.
“It’s crazy man, all these people came to see my brother, it’s amazing he touched so many hearts,” said Philonise Floyd, wearing a dark suit adorned with photo of his brother.
A second brother, Terrence Floyd, joined an outdoor memorial in a Brooklyn park, where many in the crowd knelt in the grass in the afternoon sunshine in a symbol of protest and chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
He urged the crowd to continue to seek justice but to avoid violence, saying, “My brother wasn’t about that.”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Thursday evidence had surfaced of foreign interests and “extremist agitators” affiliated with left-wing movements infiltrating the protests to foment unrest, though he offered no details.
Sharpton acknowledged that some demonstrations had devolved into incidents of lawlessness, which detractors had seized on to avoid a larger conversation about systemic racial inequality.
“None of us condone it – looting and violence,” Sharpton said. “But there is a difference between those calling for peace and those calling for quiet. Some y’all don’t want peace, you just want quiet. You just want us to suffer in silence.”
Services for Floyd are expected to stretch across six days and three states, including memorials in North Carolina and Houston. A funeral was planned for Tuesday.
In another racially charged case that has gained national attention, a court heard on Thursday that one of three white men charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man jogging in Georgia had uttered a racial slur against the victim, Ahmaud Arbery, just after he was slain.
Reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Michelle Nichols, Nathan Layne, Peter Szekely and Andrew Hay; Writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman