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George Floyd died gasping for air. His legacy is helping his people breathe

A mourner paid respects at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A mourner paid respects at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis.John Minchillo/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd was the sun.

Standing at the site of his death, I am surrounded by art in every direction. And enough flowers to fill a garden. Among them, are sunflowers. They stand out, necks craned in every direction.

On the side of Cup Foods, a grocery store outside of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South, just steps away from where Floyd was murdered by police, his face is painted in the center of a sunflower mural. Names of other victims of brutality surround him like seeds.

“I can breathe now,” it reads.

Thursday marked the first of three memorial services across the country for Floyd, the man whose death at the hands of police has caused a national uprising. That same mural was digitally reproduced and used as a backdrop of the Frank J. Lindquist Sanctuary at North Central University as speakers from family members to the Rev. Al Sharpton paid tribute to Floyd.

“Everywhere you’d go, you see people how they cling to him, they wanted to be around him,” his brother Philonise said.

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Later his cousin Shareeduh Tate echoed the sentiment, saying, “When he would enter into a room, everybody would feel special.”

You know that feeling? When someone walks in and you exhale right from your soul? Everything feels better.

That mural is supposed to do the same. It’s a marker that Floyd, and so many others, were here. A reminder that they lived, and we have lives to fight for, too.

When Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, and Greta McLain came together to create the mural of Floyd, Herrera chose the sunflower because it represents longevity and life. And the many names surrounding him like seeds are the other lives lost that we never saw bloom.

They started the mural last Thursday, just a few days after he died with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck.

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“So many of us, in the United States and beyond, have felt so powerless and there is so much we can’t do,” said Goldman. “But this was something we could do.”

The art is a way to shed light.

“As we look to reinvent the world we live in, redefining our landscape is an excellent way to start,” she said. “It can inspire the community to act, it can help the community heal, and it can mark that a historic moment happened in a certain place. It can amplify voices and make visible something that has felt invisible. We don’t want to stay silent anymore. We don’t want police brutality to be invisible anymore. By creating something large, this is our way of saying we don’t want people to look away.”

People couldn’t look away from Floyd. Over and over at the service on Thursday, his loved ones talked about how folk gravitated toward the gentle giant with the big hugs.

We shouldn’t be at a funeral, Sharpton reminded us from the podium.

“George Floyd should not be among the deceased,” he said. “He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American criminal justice malfunction. . . . George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks ever since 401 years ago. The reason we could never be who we wanted to be and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton said of America.

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And that’s why people in all 50 states and all over the world are protesting. It’s why everyone is in tears. You see a Black man with his neck under a white cop’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and he’s saying he can’t breathe. He’s hollering for his mama, and the officers don’t care. The pain peels back every wall you built to endure the hate you’ve been born into as a Black person.

Children are in the streets protesting. Kids who are just learning language know what it means to be Black, and that the power of whiteness rests on keeping its knee on their necks. Black is not a burden. It’s a beautiful thing. But it requires a knowing and a war to live that no child should have to fight.

Angie Fleming’s children are taking that stand. They keep returning to East 38th and Chicago Avenue — the sacred intersection — from their Bloomington, Minn., home. They pray with the protesters. They listen to the speakers. They stand in front of the murals, including the sunflower, and take photos.

“We are down here to support George Floyd and prove Black Lives Matter,” said Ari, 8. Her big sister Alexa, 10, chimed in. “We are down here to support George Floyd and it’s not fair that all this is happening.” And their oldest sister, Athena, 11, finished with, “We are down here because we don’t want this to happen again to anybody else.”

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Angie fears for her children. She tears up thinking about racism and brutality. But she wants them to see the hope that’s still here.

“I have a 13-year-old son,” she said of their older brother Brandon. “He will always fit the description. My husband will fit the description. Their uncles will fit the description. I have been down here as much as I have because of their future. And they need to know things are going to change.”

The three little Black girls stood in front of a mural of George Floyd five times their size. Their mom took their picture. And I remember the four little girls who died in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

They didn’t get to bloom in full. Our people have been forced to grow in contained conditions for too long.

“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country — in education, in health services, and in every area of American life,” Sharpton said at the service. "It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ’Get your knee off our necks.’ ”

I see his face at the center of that sunflower again. You know, sunflowers turn their golden heads toward the sun. We all learned how plants use the sun’s energy and do a dance with carbon dioxide and water to create oxygen.

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Those sunflowers all around the place where he died are turned every which direction because George Floyd was the sun.

And in his death, he’s helping us all to breathe.





Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.