Houston (AFP) - It was their last chance to say goodbye: thousands of Houston residents braved the sun and heat Monday to honor George Floyd at a public viewing full of pain and reflection.
A long line of mourners, many from the city's Third Ward neighborhood where Floyd grew up, formed in the morning and grew over the course of the day outside the Fountain of Praise church in south Houston.
The 46-year-old black man's death on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck has sparked a wave of anger and anti-racism protests across the US and around the world.
Some in the crowd wore shirts printed with the phrase "I can't breathe" -- Floyd's haunting last words. Others raised their fists, a symbol of black power and solidarity, over the coffin.
Mourners had to wear masks inside the church, and could only stay for a few fleeting seconds in front of the open casket -- rules put in place because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
For Joseph Qualls, who went to the same high school as Floyd, the death is even more painful.
"He was the first person I knew in my neighborhood to get a scholarship," said the 38-year-old barbershop owner, who attended the service with his wife Candice.
Kelvin Sherrod, 41, brought his wife and two sons, ages eight and nine, with him. The whole family wore black T-shirts emblazoned with "I can't breathe."
Floyd's death hit his children hard, Sherrod said. "They asked us, 'What happened, why did they do this to this man?'
"It does not matter how old you are, it affects us all," Sherrod noted.
"Being here with my boys means a lot," he said. "It is a time in history and they will remember they were part of it."
- 'This is not ok' -
Amid all the mourning, Sherrod added he was still happy to see so many people had turned out.
"It's bringing us together as a country, not based on the color of your skin," he said.
Candice Qualls said she was also glad to see "the country has come together in unity."
"It's time for change and for us to overcome oppression, police brutality and racism," she said.
Among the mostly black crowd, white mourners wanted to convey a message of solidarity and unity.
Sarah Frazzell came with five of her friends, two of whom brought bouquets of flowers to "support the (Floyd) family and the community."
The crowd size was significant, the 33-year-old added, because "people are showing America that this is not ok."
Floyd was the latest in a long line of mostly unarmed black men killed by police officers over the last several years. His death evokes that of Eric Garner, who in 2014 was choked to death by a white New York police officer during an arrest.
"They have doubled back and taken another life with a chokehold," said Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, who was invited to Floyd's funeral by his family.
"That's why we have to get justice. We have to get the bad apples out of the police," she said.
For conditions to change, police relations with the black community must be thoroughly reviewed, and racist officers must be fired, said Sherrod.
"In the community, we don't know who to trust. If the good officers don't put their foot down against the bad officers, then you can't trust any of them," he said.
Houston police chief Art Acevedo, who had come to meet the Floyd family, admitted there was "a lot of work to do" to bring an end to the mutual lack of trust between police and the black community.
Seated far from the crowd in a camping chair and holding an umbrella to protect himself from the sun, Zachary Daniels said he doubted that people's mindsets would change any time soon.
"The question is if it's going to continue for six months, or will we be here again celebrating another black life?" the 56-year-old mused.