MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd’s memorial service Thursday brought calls for sweeping change in America, as the Rev. Al Sharpton called Floyd’s death emblematic of oppression Black people have faced since the nation’s founding and announced a new March on Washington reminiscent of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic action.
Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody — after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — has sent people spilling into the streets to protest police violence as part of a public uprising unlike any the country has seen in decades. The memorial service came a day after three of the former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death were criminally charged and a fourth saw a murder charge upgraded from third-degree to second-degree.
Sharpton, president of the civil rights organization National Action Network, took the stand at Thursday’s service to say Floyd’s story ‘‘has been the story of Black folks’’ in the United States for hundreds of years.
‘‘The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be, is you kept your knee on our neck,’’ Sharpton said, adding later: ‘‘What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country — in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say ‘Get your knee off our necks.’ ”
Announcing a March on Washington on Aug. 28 to ‘‘recommit’’ to King’s ideals and push for criminal justice reform, Sharpton echoed Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump’s earlier call for the private ceremony to be not just a celebration of Floyd’s life, but also ‘‘a plea to America and a plea for justice that we don’t let his death be in vain.’’
‘‘In one era, we had to fight slavery,’’ Sharpton said. ‘‘Another era we had to fight Jim Crow, another era we dealt with voting rights. This is the era to deal with policing and criminal justice. We need to go back to Washington and stand up — Black, white, Latino, Arab — in the shadows of Lincoln and tell them this is the time to stop this.’’
Downtown at North Central University, inside the sanctuary, there were smiles and tears among the few hundred who had gathered as Floyd’s family took to the stage to talk about their loved one in deeply personal terms, moving beyond the image of a man whose final moments have gone viral and outraged the nation and the world.
Floyd grew up as part of a large family in Houston’s Third Ward, raised by a single mother in a house where they didn’t have much ‘‘but was full of love,’’ his younger brother Rodney Floyd said. The kids lived off banana and mayonnaise sandwiches and handwashed their socks and underwear in the kitchen sink every night before school to have clean clothes for the next day.
The family and others who were closest to Floyd called him ‘‘Perry,’’ his middle name, and recalled a kind, gregarious soul who brought home kids from school who had nowhere else to go.
Sometimes there were 30 or 40 kids in the house, his brother Philonise Floyd tearfully recalled.
‘‘He touched so many people,’’ he said.
As a hearse carrying Floyd’s coffin arrived at the university around 9:45 a.m., Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo knelt in a show of respect. Officials ordered the flag outside the combined city hall and county courthouse flown at half-staff.
In attendance were Democratic public officials including Governor Tim Walz and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, actor/director Tyler Perry, and actors Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, and Kevin Hart. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was among those who arrived early.
In a brief speech after the service began, Crump declared that although the pandemic required the event to remain on a strict schedule, the virus did not kill Floyd. An official autopsy, released Wednesday, found that Floyd had the coronavirus in early April.
‘‘I want to make it clear on the record,’’ Crump told the crowd. ‘‘It was the other pandemic that we’re far too familiar with in America, that pandemic of racism and discrimination that killed George Floyd.’’
Outside, a few hundred people of various races and ages gathered in Elliot Park, where the service was being aired over speakers. The mood was somber, and attendees stood quietly.
At the end of the service, Sharpton called on those in attendance to stand in a moment of silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time an officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.
As the time went on, many people in the room began to loudly sob, including members of Floyd’s family.
From the back, a man cried out, his voice muffled by a face mask, ‘‘I can’t breathe!’’
That caused many to cry even harder.
A man turned away from the podium, his face concealed by a mask, his eyes squeezed shut. ‘‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’’ someone else cried out.
‘‘They had enough time,’’ Sharpton said of the police officers as the time concluded. ‘‘Now what are we going to do with our time?’’
Another memorial is scheduled for Saturday in Raeford, N.C., near Floyd’s birthplace. There will also be a public memorial for him Monday in Houston, and he is expected to be buried in a private ceremony Tuesday.
In the United States, where protests had been marked by bouts of lawlessness since last week, relative quiet continued Thursday. New Yorkers also gathered for a memorial service for Floyd, and in Washington there was a much lower law-enforcement profile as thousands of people marched from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial to protest the death.
Three of the former officers charged in the death made their first court appearances at about the same time as the service, the Star-Tribune reported.
Also Thursday, defense attorneys said that two of three Minneapolis police officers accused of aiding and abetting in the death were rookies barely off probation while a more senior white officer ignored Floyd’s cries for help.
Earl Gray said his client, Thomas Lane, had no choice but to follow the instructions of Derek Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree murder. Gray called the case against his client “extremely weak.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.