HOUSTON — Preachers at the funeral Tuesday of George Floyd, whose death in custody sparked worldwide protests, turned their anger at US President Donald Trump, accusing him of “wickedness” for cracking down on demonstrators instead of police brutality and calling to “clean out the White House.”
More than 500 mourners wearing masks against the coronavirus packed a Houston church a little more than two weeks after Floyd was pinned to the pavement by a white Minneapolis police officer who put a knee on his neck for what prosecutors said was 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
Cellphone video of the encounter, including Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe,” ignited protests and scattered violence across the US and around the world, turning the 46-year-old Floyd — a man who in life was little known beyond the public housing project where he was raised in Houston’s Third Ward — into a worldwide symbol of injustice.
Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton told the service in Houston that Trump’s efforts to stop the protests with force, including the use of rubber bullets, rather than seek justice for abused citizens suggests Trump is signalling to police officers that they are above the law.
“We are fighting wickedness in high places!” Sharpton thundered, uttering the phrase repeatedly as he accused Trump of “scheming on how you can spin the story rather than how you can achieve justice.”
“You call in your cabinet, trying to figure out how it’s going to affect your vote, rather than how it’s going to affect our lives,” the renowned religious and rights advocate told the guests.
“You take rubber bullets and tear gas to clear out peaceful protesters and then take a Bible and walk in front of a church and use a church as a prop? Wickedness in high places,” Sharpton said.
As funeral attendees applauded, Sharpton berated the president for failing to directly address Floyd’s death
Trump did phone the Floyd family to offer his sympathy, and he has described the 46-year-old’s death as a “terrible thing” that “should never have happened.”
Sharpton stressed the presidential response has been insufficient.
“What about the human right of George Floyd?” he said. “The signals that we’re sending is that if you are in law enforcement, that the law doesn’t apply to you.”
Sharpton was not alone in targeting Trump.
Reverend William ‘Bill’ Lawson, a Houston civil rights leader and the founder of the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in the Third Ward, where Floyd grew up, demanded that his death be a start of real change.
“Is this going to be like so many other movements — a moment of anger and rage and back to business as usual? You could say that because the prejudiced and the bigoted are not going to change. But we can do some things to change them… Obviously the first thing we have to do is to clean out the White House,” he said to applause, urging people to go out and vote.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, addressed to funeral by video but made no mention of his opponent in November.
“I know you have a lot of questions that no child should have to ask, questions that too many black children have had to ask for generations: Why? Why is Daddy gone?” he said, addressing Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter in a video eulogy played at the service. “Now is the time for racial justice. That’s the answer we must give to our children when they ask why.”
Other speakers focused on Floyd’s legacy.
“Third Ward, Cuney Homes, that’s where he was born at,” Floyd’s brother, Rodney, told mourners at the Fountain of Praise church. “But everybody is going to remember him around the world. He is going to change the world.”
The funeral capped six days of mourning for Floyd in three cities: Raeford, North Carolina, near where he was born., Houston, where he grew up, and Minneapolis, where he died. The memorials have drawn the families of other black victims whose names have become familiar in the debate over race and justice — among them, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin.
Following the service, Floyd’s golden casket was taken by hearse toward the cemetery in the Houston suburb of Pearland where he was to be entombed next to his mother, for whom he cried out as he lay dying. A mile from the graveyard, the casket was transferred to a glass-sided carriage drawn by a pair of white horses.
Hundreds gathered along the procession route and outside the cemetery entrance in the mid-90s heat.
“I don’t want to see any black man, any man, but most definitely not a black man sitting on the ground in the hands of bad police,” said Marcus Brooks, 47, who set up a tent with other graduates of Jack Yates High School, Floyd’s alma mater.
In the past two weeks, amid the furor over Floyd’s death, sweeping and previously unthinkable things have taken place: Confederate statues have been toppled, and many cities are debating overhauling, dismantling or cutting funding for police departments. Authorities in some places have barred police from using chokeholds or are otherwise rethinking policies on the use of force.
Dozens of Floyd’s family members, most dressed in white, took part in the four-hour service. Grammy-winning singer Ne-Yo was among those who sang.
The mourners also included actors Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, J.J. Watt of the NFL’s Houston Texans, rapper Trae tha Truth, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who brought the crowd to its feet when he announced he will sign an executive order banning chokeholds in the city.
Most of the pews were full, with relatively little space between people.
“So much for social distancing today,” the Rev. Remus Wright told mourners, gently but firmly instructing those attending to wear face masks.
While the church service was private, at least 50 people gathered outside to pay their respects.
“There’s a real big change going on, and everybody, especially black, right now should be a part of that,” said Kersey Biagase, who traveled more than three hours from Port Barre, Louisiana, with his girlfriend, Brandi Pickney. They wore T-shirts printed with Floyd’s name and “I Can’t Breathe.”
Floyd served nearly five years in prison for robbery with a deadly weapon before becoming a mentor and a church outreach volunteer in Houston. He moved to Minnesota several years ago through a program that tried to change men’s lives by helping them find work in new settings.
At the time of his death, Floyd was out of work as a bouncer at a Minneapolis club that had closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. He was seized by police after being accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
Four Minneapolis officers were arrested in his death: Derek Chauvin, 44, was charged with second-degree murder. J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao were charged with aiding and abetting. All four could get up to 40 years in prison.
Some of the mostly peaceful demonstrations that erupted after Floyd’s death were marked by bursts of arson, assaults, vandalism and smash-and-grab raids on businesses, with more than 10,000 people arrested. But protests in recent days have been overwhelmingly peaceful.