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George Floyd memorial: Loved ones say goodbye to man whose death ignited national conversation on racism

He died outside a corner store in Minneapolis last week and became a symbol for the crusade against police brutality.
Human rights advocate Martin Luther King III and his family pay their respects to the remains of George Floyd before a memorial service in his honor at North Central University's Frank J. Lindquist Sanctuary in Minneapolis on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Kerem Yucel / AFP - Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd's family and closest friends demanded justice Thursday for a man they said was killed by "the pandemic of racism and discrimination."

Mourners paid tribute to Floyd inside a sanctuary at North Central University in Minneapolis, singing praises for their brother, father, uncle and friend who died at the age of 46.

Floyd died as a police officer planted a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes in a violent arrest that is all-too representative of African American life, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a eulogy.

"George Floyd's story is the story of black folks," said Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization. "Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being — because you kept your knee on our necks."

Sharpton, the host of MSNBC's "PoliticsNation," added: "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, 'Get your knee off our necks.'"

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Sharpton announced plans for a march in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, the anniversary of the original March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

"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,'" Sharpton said.

Floyd's younger brother Philonise Floyd said the family grew up poor but had everything they needed. They enjoyed banana-and-mayonnaise sandwiches made by their mother and washed clothes in a bathroom sink before drying them over a water heater or an oven.

"Everybody wants justice. We want justice for George," the younger Floyd told mourners. "He's going to get it. He's going to get it."

Floyd tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, weeks before his death, according to an autopsy. But he died from a much more deadly disease, family attorney Benjamin Crump said.

"It was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd," Crump told spirited mourners.

"I want to make it clear, on the record ... the other pandemic that we are too familiar with in America — the pandemic of racism and discrimination — killed George Floyd," he said.

Floyd's death has sparked protests against systemic racism, and Sharpton quoted from the Book of Ecclesiastes in predicting that a time for substantive change had arrived.

"I'm more hopeful today than ever," Sharpton said. "When I looked this time and saw marches where, in some cases, young whites outnumbered the blacks marching. I know it's a different time and a different season."

The spirited church service ended in tears, as Sharpton asked mourners to stand for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck, prosecutors said.

Actress Tiffany Haddish and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, hugged and broke down in tears. Garner died in 2014 during an arrest on Staten Island in New York City, when he, too, told police "I can't breathe."

Thursday's service began an extraordinary multi-city series of memorials so those close to Floyd could honor him in the communities where he was born, raised and died.

The sanctuary at North Central University can seat 1,000 people, but only 500 were allowed inside as the school practiced social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Almost all the mourners inside, aside from musicians and the sign language interpreter, wore masks.

Floyd's bright gold closed casket was adorned with white, purple and green flowers. A drawing of Floyd, with his name in bright yellow letters, topped the stage.

"It's been overwhelming," Adarryl Hunter, 45, a friend of Floyd's for more than 25 years, told NBC News before he entered the hall. "The magnitude and the response of what happened — how I knew him kind of gets a little bit lost in there, because the other stuff is more important."

"The scale of this is so big that how I knew him and how we were friends — there're more important issues," Hunter said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, comedian Kevin Hart, rappers T.I. and Ludacris and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil rights activist, were among the mourners who attended services.

North Central University President Scott Hagen told mourners that he had already raised $53,000 for a scholarship for black students in Floyd's name. He urged other universities to do the same.

"It's time to invest like never before in a new generation of young black Americans who are poised and ready to take leadership of our nation," he told cheering mourners.

Outside the sanctuary, demonstrators — including Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and rapper Master P — supported Floyd's grieving mourners.

Some of them wore facial coverings and donned T-shirts with the message "We can't breathe," referring to the final words uttered by Floyd and Garner.

Kalin Jackson, 36, arrived at the university in hope of witnessing the service with her 11-year-old daughter, Amira.

"She needs to see this historic moment," Jackson said. "I've been a victim of police brutality. I've witnessed police brutality on several occasions. Right now, I just feel like the events of the past 10 days are us finally tired. We're absolutely tired."

As Floyd's casket was rolled outside after the two-hour service, supportive demonstrators chanted "We can't breathe" and "No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police!"

Floyd died a week ago Monday after he was accused of passing a suspicious-looking $20 bill at a corner store and arrested by Minneapolis police.

Minutes later, Floyd was face down in handcuffs on the pavement as Chauvin, who was later fired, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

Passersby recorded the incident as Floyd begged for air and his mom. Chauvin was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder; the charge was upgraded Wednesday to second-degree murder.

State authorities have already launched a sweeping civil rights probe of the Minneapolis Police Department.

After the North Central University memorial, Floyd's remains were set to be transported to his birth city, Raeford, North Carolina, for a public viewing Saturday.

Then, on Monday, another viewing is set to be held, this time in Houston, where Floyd was raised.

And finally, on Tuesday, Floyd's funeral is scheduled to be held at The Fountain of Praise Church in Houston, and former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend, Floyd's family said.

When Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, announced his candidacy, he said issues of racial inequality would be central to his campaign.

Floyd's death has sparked protests across America, with police at times clashing with demonstrators. Looters have infiltrated the protests in the evening hours and destroyed retail stores in cities across the country.

President Donald Trump has vowed to bring the clashes under control, and he even threatened to send military forces into U.S. cities, if necessary.

Weekend chaos appeared to quell a bit by Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, three of Chauvin's fellow fired police officers were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting in the alleged crime against Floyd.

Daniella Silva reported from Minneapolis and David K. Li from New York.