MINNEAPOLIS (AFP) – Hundreds of mourners joined an emotional memorial service in Minneapolis on Thursday for George Floyd, the black man killed by police last week, as civil rights leader Al Sharpton vowed mass protests will continue until “we change the whole system of justice”.
Largely peaceful demonstrations took place later in cities from coast to coast. In New York, thousands marched over Brooklyn Bridge, while in Washington and Los Angeles curfews were lifted and crowds reduced.
In Minneapolis, Floyd’s attorney told mourners he would find justice for the 46-year-old, who died during a May 25 arrest when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“It was not the coronavirus pandemic that killed George Floyd,” said Benjamin Crump, who is representing Floyd’s family. “It was that other pandemic. The pandemic of racism and discrimination.”
The crowd stood in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the same length of time that officer Derek Chauvin spent with his knee on Floyd’s neck, a scene captured on video.
Floyd’s death has reignited long-felt anger over police killings of African-Americans and unleashed a nationwide wave of civil unrest unlike any seen in the United States (US) since Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 assassination.
With marches for racial justice stretching beyond the US and around the world, Sharpton said Floyd’s death would not be in vain.
“It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks,” said the 65-year-old Baptist minister.
“You changed the world, George,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting, George.”
“We’re going to keep going until we change the whole system of justice.”
Members of Floyd’s family were among several hundred people attending the North Central University service.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo dropped to a knee as the hearse bearing Floyd’s remains arrived for the service. A vigil for Floyd was also held in New York and was attended by thousands of people, including Floyd’s brother, Terrence.
“White Silence is Violence”, a sign read. “Make America Not Embarrassing Again”, read another.
Arrests were reported in Manhattan after the 8pm curfew passed.
Upstate in Buffalo, two police officers were suspended without pay after a video showed them pushing over an elderly protester who fell and suffered a head injury.
Reporting the suspension on Twitter, city mayor Byron Brown said he and the police commissioner were “deeply disturbed” by the video.
An earlier police statement said the man, who appeared unconscious and bled heavily from one ear, “tripped and fell”.
“This incident is wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted.
A Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, broke ranks with her party meanwhile and revealed she was “struggling” with whether to support President Donald Trump’s re-election.
Murkowski said her move was prompted by remarks from Trump’s former defence secretary James Mattis, who a day earlier delivered a biting assessment of a president who “tries to divide us”.
“I thought General Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” Murkowski told reporters.
Her comments mark a major break with Trump within the Republican camp, which has largely held together through various crises including his impeachment and current threat to use military force against protests.
While condemning Floyd’s death, Trump has adopted a tough stance towards the protesters, saying they include many “bad people” and calling on governors to “dominate the streets”.
US civil rights groups filed a case on Thursday suing Trump, after security forces fired pepper balls and smoke bombs to clear peaceful demonstrators outside the White House before the president walked to a church for a photo op earlier this week.