In Atlanta, Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., addressed 1,000 people, many dressed in their Sunday finest, urging them not to stop “until there is never again the breath taken out of the life of any black or brown person in this nation and around the world.”
In Fall River, Massachusetts, protesters lay on their stomachs in the grass, hands together behind their backs, replicating the position in which George Floyd was held before he died. Members of the Fall River Police Department joined protesters in taking a knee.
In Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, along with New Yord State Attorney General Letitia James, joined Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, at a memorial that drew thousands. McCray and James drew loud responses by calling out “Say his name” and waiting for response: “George Floyd.”
And in Washington, D.C., a normally bustling plaza packed with protesters went silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Floyd spent under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder. On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats took the same pause while on bended knee.
Across the nation Thursday, Americans stopped to commemorate the life and mourn the death of Floyd, 46, at the hands of Minneapolis police, with Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” giving life to a searing moment in the nation’s fraught struggle for human rights.
Artists have painted murals of his image on city streets. Protesters across the world have yelled his name and demanded justice while facing off against police officers dressed in riot gear. Cities have come to a halt, enforcing curfews and closing down transit systems to discourage public gatherings and looting.
At one point, the White House sat in darkness, lights turned off, as Secret Service officials battled protesters who had gathered outside.
The demonstrations are unfolding at a time of extreme hardship for black Americans, who have disproportionately been hit by the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic implosion, with more than 42 million Americans so far filing for unemployment.
The overwhelming chorus of outrage, fueled often by what some feel is an at times overly aggressive response by law enforcement, have formed a reality few Americans have witnessed before.
“We are at a tipping point, much as during the ‘60s when Dr. Martin Luther King said we are at a crossroads,” said Aaron Bryant, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “This moment is about the nation living up to its promise and the guarantees we all are given under the Constitution.”
On Thursday, the focus returned to the life Floyd led as he was memorialized by family and friends at Minneapolis’ North Central University, an event included a “national eulogy” by the Rev. Al Sharpton and a “national criminal justice system address” by Floyd family attorney Ben Crump.
The tributes will continue Saturday in Raeford, North Carolina, where Floyd was born and where Floyd’s sister Bridgette lives. And on Monday and Tuesday, funeral services will take place in Houston, where Floyd lived before he left for better employment options in Minneapolis. There will be both a public and private viewing, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has announced he will attend.
Much as the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death have erupted in cities across the country, so, too, are his memorials echoing.
Re-enactments in the streets
Hundreds of people laid on their stomachs across Second Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, some silent, some chanting “Say his name,” and “This is what democracy looks like.” Organizers passed out baking soda packets to demonstrators in case police deployed tear gas, as occurred at several other protests this week.
In Sarasota, Florida, marchers assembled in a major intersection and re-enacted Floyd’s death under a heavy rain. Police blocked the streets to keep traffic away.
A protester laid down in the middle of intersection and another protester kneeled on his neck. The crowd repeatedly chanted “I can’t breathe,” and the demonstrator on the ground repeatedly called out “momma,” which Floyd also said before he died.
‘Something needs to change’
On Main Street in the Cape Cod town of Bourne, Massachusetts, some 400 protesters took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd.
The silence broke hours of noise from protestors lining the street chanting and holding signs, “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “If you are not anti-racist, you are complicit, speak up!”
As cars, trucks, and motorcycles drove up and down busy Main Street, most honked in solidarity with the protestors.
“We’ve seen it across the nation,” said Kunall Rajagopal, 22, who attended the rally. “Something needs to change. Until we see it at the very top, we need to start at our own communities.”
‘Please don’t kill me’
In Southern California, AaRone Fowler watched a live stream of the funeral of George Floyd from his friend’s house. The words of Dr. Scott Hagen, who prayed for those who are “crushed in body and spirit,” hit home.
Fifteen months ago, Fowler, now 24, was in Arizona, face down on the ground with two Phoenix police officers on top of him. He was begging, “please don’t kill me.”
“I know what it’s like to have two grown adults on top of you,” Fowler said. “I was face down and had my face, the left side of my face, grinding into the ground.”
Like Floyd, Fowler had trouble breathing, not just from the weight pressing down on him, but also because every time he tried to take a breath, he got a mouthful of dust from the ground.
He had been suspected of stealing his own car. After he’d been tackled and restrained and thrown in the back of a police car, he was released and told he could walk home.
Hearing Floyd’s brother talk Thursday during the memorial about their childhood made Fowler realize how abruptly a loved one could be taken. He realized Floyd’s daughter would never see her father again.
Protesters call for a revolution
In Las Vegas, about 50 people gathered at Kianga Isoke Palacio Park coloring, drawing, laughing and talking while creating protests signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “If he can’t breathe, we can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”
“We don’t feel like our lives matter,” Stretch Sanders, one of the organizers and a minister at the Greater Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas, told the crowd.
At one point, Sanders, 25, asked those gathered to put their hands in a fist and lift it up, shouting, “Level up.”
“Channel that energy. It’s cool being pissed off and being angry, but we need to take that rage and make it revolutionary,” he said.
‘He didn’t deserve to lose his life’
At one of Los Angeles’ largest homeless shelters, the Union Rescue Mission, the house-made hamburgers and french fries in the dining room were competing for attention with the Floyd service playing on a large-screen TV in a recreation room.
Emotions were running high among residents, especially given the frequent interactions with police that are a daily part of life on tent-filled Skid Row.
Darcissha Bell, who has lived at the mission for about two months, said she was filled with dismay over Floyd’s death.
“He didn’t deserve to lose his life in that way,” she said. “Everybody’s life matters.”
One of the volunteers, Dinah Raheem, said she hoped some good would come from the tragedy. The service came a day after Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed cutting the police budget to fund more services that can directly help the African American community.
“It is allowing our leaders to make a change now,” Raheem said.
National mourning a ‘new beginning’
In Dudley, Massachusetts, Abigail Cooper, 15, was planning a protest and meeting with Webster Police Chief Michael Shaw to map out an event Saturday to recognize Floyd’s death. She said she hopes Floyd’s memorial can bring some degree of closure.
“This is really the tip of the iceberg because this has happened so many times, and it was recorded and got to the media really fast,” said Cooper, who is black and resides in a predominantly white community of close to 12,000 people.
In New Hampshire, Lovey Roundtree Oliff, the first African American woman elected to Exeter’s Select Board, called the national memorial for Floyd “a new beginning of sorts.” She said she couldn’t help but think of the public outrage at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 and how critics portrayed his message as anti-American.
“A lot of the concerns and issues that people were feeling before, that in my opinion were being ignored, are now being heard,” Roundtree Oliff said. “If the nation as a whole had been listening more clearly in 2016, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today.”
Other vigils and marches anticipated big turnouts as well. In Las Vegas’ Kianga Isoke Palacio Park, roughly 150 people were expected at a Black Lives Matter: Solidarity event.
‘His last words mean so much to me’
In Chicago, hundreds of protesters marched through the North and South Sides Thursday evening as hundreds more gathered on a Zoom meeting to remember Floyd and coordinate future local protests in his name.
Alycia Kamil, 19, and Jalen Kobayashi co-organized the protest in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
“Everything that has happened throughout the country—people coming together—has been super beautiful,” Kamil said.
Layci Muhammad, 14, joined hundreds of students and adults at a rally and march on Chicago’s South Side, donning a bright yellow shirt with George Floyd’s name and the words “I can’t breathe.” Muhammad said she had asked her cousin to make her the shirt so she could show her support at protests.
“(Floyd) is like a brother to me. He’s family. His life, and his last words mean so much to me,” Muhammad said.
Floyd was a ‘gentle giant,’ friends say
While Floyd may have quickly morphed into a symbolin his death, he was remembered by those who knew him as a “gentle giant,” said his friend Wallace White.
“He didn’t need to die like that. All the footage showed the man was not resisting him. He was loved by everyone around here. He was a real quiet guy, liked to have fun,” White told USA TODAY.
Floyd was detained on May 25 by Chauvin and three other policemen at around 8 p.m. after allegedly trying to pass a fake $20 bill at a local grocery store.
As protests erupted after his death, details about Floyd’s life emerged: A solid basketball player at 6-foot-4. A doting father to a young girl. A well-liked fixture as a security guard at the Conga Latin Bistro.
Jovanni Thunstrom, Floyd’s employer, said his killing was “just plain murder.”
“My employee George Floyd was murdered by a Police officer that had no compassion, used his position to commit a murder of someone that was begging for his life,” wrote Thunstrom, owner of the Conga Latin Bistro, in a Facebook post. “I will like to keep on writing, but my vision is blurry, from the tears coming out of my eyes. I am sorry, I usually don’t cry.”
Protesters have been moved by other recent examples of injustice, including the filmed killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the shooting of paramedic Breonna Taylor by Kentucky police officers, and a viral video from Central Park in New York City showing a white woman threatening an African American man with police action after he asked her to leash her dog as required by law so he could bird-watch in peace.
Janai Nelson, associate director and counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said protesters want to usher in societal changes in honor of Floyd.
“This is a multicultural movement that didn’t start as one, a moment that originated with the birth of Black Lives Matter in 2014, when that statement was controversial,” said Nelson.
“Now in 2020, you see young white people holding up signs saying that you’d have never seen that a mere five years ago,” she said. “So in that way it’s hugely different, this death has galvanized a group of allies in a short time.”
Lorén Spears, a Native American who is executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, said this moment belongs to all people of color who have endured mistreatment that hasn’t always been captured on camera.
“The African American community, the Native American community, the Hispanic American community, and other immigrant communities are subjugated in this country,” she said. “Our country has lots of good points today after 400 years, but it was founded on oppression and when something is founded on conquest and oppression, it creates a hierarchy of domination that continues systems of oppression.”
In Atlanta, Seletha Johnson stood next to her 18-year-old son Thursday at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, both holding white flowers to honor Floyd.
Johnson, who is black, said she has been angered by Floyd’s death and wanted to take a stand against injustices toward black Americans. She said the killings of black males has forced her to have daily talks with her son about how to protect himself and respond to police.
“We are out here hoping that our work is not in vain and that we are able to make a change,” said Johnson, of Fayetteville, Georgia. “Blacks have been treated unfairly for years, hundreds of years. And we are just ready for a change.”
Contributing: Wenei Philimon, Kevin McCoy, Nicquel Terry Ellis, Chris Woodyard, Grace Hauck of USA TODAY and Brian Lee of the Telegram & Gazette, John D’Anna of The Arizona Republic, Wayne Miller of The Providence Journal, Chrissy Suttles and Daveen Rae Kurutz of The Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times, Zac Anderson and Timothy Fanning of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Beth Treffeisen of the Cape Cod Times.