Loved ones say goodbye to George Floyd at memorial service

Daniella Silva and David K. Li

George Floyd's family and closest friends on Thursday demanded justice for their departed loved one, who 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 dear friend who died at the age of 46.

Floyd died after a policeman planted a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes, a violent arrest that's all-too representative of African American life, according to a eulogy delivered by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"George Floyd’s story is the story of black folks," Sharpton told mourners. "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."

He 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.'"

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 loving mother and washed clothes in a bathroom sink, before drying them over a hot water heater or 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 coronavirus, weeks before his death, according to an autopsy. But Floyd 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."

Floyd's death has sparked protests against systemic racism and Rev. 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."

Al Sharpton arrives for George Floyd memorial service (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday’s service starts an extraordinary multi-city series of memorials so loved ones can honor Floyd 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 practices 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 in 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."

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mayor Jacob Frey, Gov. Tim Walz, comedian Kevin Hart, actress Tiffany Haddish, rapper Ludacris and veteran civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the mourners who attended services.

North Central University President Scott Hagen told mourners he’s 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 loved ones.

Some of them wore facial coverings and donned T-shirts with the message, "We can’t breathe,” referencing the final words uttered by Floyd and Eric Garner, another black man who died in police custody.

Kalin Jackson, 36, arrived at the university in the hopes of witnessing the memorial 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."

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, a handcuffed Floyd was facedown on the pavement with officer Derek Chauvin, who was later fired, pressing his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

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

The state of Minnesota has already launched a sweeping civil rights probe of the Minneapolis Police Department.

After the North Central University memorial, Floyd’s remains are set to be transported to his birth city of Raeford, North Carolina, for a public viewing on 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, the man’s family said.

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

He’s been highly critical of President Donald Trump, calling him a "threat" to the nation and noting that Trump said there were some "very fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville, where white nationalists were protesting the city's plan to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general.

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

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

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