Saturday, October 31, 2020

Visitors pay respects to George Floyd in Houston, say his death has 'touched the world'

Jun 09. 2020
People wait in line to pay their final respects to George Floyd during his public viewing at the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston on Monday, June 8, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tamir Kalifa
People wait in line to pay their final respects to George Floyd during his public viewing at the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston on Monday, June 8, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tamir Kalifa
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By The Washington Post · Arelis R. Hernández, Brittney Martin · NATIONAL, COURTSLAW, RACE 

HOUSTON - The first time Austayne Brown walked by George Floyd's open casket, his grief boiled over as he whispered "thank you" to the man the world saw killed after suffering under the weight of a white police officer's knee and the burden of this country's long history of racial injustice.

But the interaction felt incomplete. So Brown rejoined the throngs of thousands who lined up beneath the scalding sun here to catch a final glimpse of the man so many saw in his final, brutal, moments. He contemplated what Floyd would have him do next.

"The first time was kind of like me talking to him, sharing with him what he was able to do for the world," said Brown, 30, a youth rehabilitation counselor who drove 22 hours from Dover, Delaware, to be there for the visitation on Monday afternoon. "The second time I wanted to listen . . . and it was like him saying: 'You saw what I was able to do on accident, what can you do on purpose?"

In life, George Floyd was mostly anonymous to all except those who loved him best. In death, his name and image are now synonymous with a worldwide call for racial reconciliation. Countless protesters of all backgrounds marched, chanted and cried his name in nearly every major city of the United States and in numerous locations around the world. Families are having difficult conversations. People are wondering what role they can play in a changing nation. Some elected leaders are proposing sweeping changes to law enforcement, including a demolition of the Minneapolis Police Department, in whose custody Floyd died.

Floyd did not set out to be a martyr, but that is what mourners who came to pay their respects say he has become. That scene, those sounds, and the way it has touched Americans, particularly black Americans, has triggered the kind of uncomfortable reckoning that brought thousands of strangers to southwestern Houston to lament and repent.

The 46-year-old was born in North Carolina and was reared in the housing projects of Houston's historically black Third Ward. Friends and neighbors recalled George Perry Floyd as a gifted athlete and an unmistakable presence, not only for his 6-foot-6 frame but also for his embrace of others. He drew people in, friends said. 

In a life marked by hardship and poverty, Floyd was well-loved and taught to "bring others into the fold," his family said during memorial services in Minneapolis. 

Jonathan Veal spotted Floyd across the cafeteria on the first day of sixth grade. At 12 years old, Floyd already stood 6-foot-2. 

"I was like, this guy's in the 6th grade?" said Veal, who is now 45. The two became friends and played sports together throughout high school. Veal was home in Oklahoma City, Okla., when he saw the first grainy video of Floyd dying on Memorial Day. At first, he didn't recognize the man lying face down in the street.

"Wow, this is happening again," he thought when he saw it. When the name was released the next day, Veal hoped it was some other George Floyd in Minnesota. But tributes from former classmates and teammates on social media confirmed that it was his Floyd.

What has happened in the wake of Floyd's death feels "surreal," Veal said. He said that his friend always wanted to make a difference, and that he would take solace in what his death has started. He recalled a conversation on the last day of their junior year of high school, when Veal and Floyd were hanging out at a place they called "The Hill" when the boys started talking about the future. 

"I'm going to be big, man," Veal recalled Floyd saying. "I'm going to touch the world." 

Pastor Patrick Ngwolo was anxious to minister to the people of the "Bricks" or the neighbors of the Cuney Homes, where Floyd once lived. But he had no way into a neighborhood suspicious of outsiders. He met "Big Floyd" on the basketball court and the giant man became his "gateway" to the people. 

Floyd ushered his neighbors toward faith, the pastor said. And with his death, he is again playing that role. 

"We are either going to master the sin of racism or the sin of racism is going to master us," Ngwolo said before leading a group of people in prayer in the same basketball court where Floyd once played. He compared the progress in racial justice from previous eras to forbearance on an old American debt.

"Forbearance just pushes out the due date, but you still got to pay it and there's interest," he said. "But it looks like it's come due in 2020."

A mural of Floyd, with his head and shoulders surrounded by wings against a sky-blue background, has drawn scores of visitors each hour to a Third Ward corner store. They leave messages, say a prayer, drop off flowers and remember.

"The situation has to end, and the only way it will end is to stand up for what's right," said Eric Bates, a Houstonian who visited the mural on Sunday with his wife, wearing a shirt with Floyd's image.

At the Fountain of Praise Church where Floyd's remains lay, thousands endured the heat Monday to wait in a line that was several hundred people long. So many arrived that they had to be shuttled from a shopping center about a half-mile away to enter the line near the church.

Steve Wiltz, 29, arrived at about 9:45 a.m., with his mother Charlene Wiltz, 64, to show their support. They were still in line at noon, but they didn't mind. They expected to wait. 

"It's a shame that all these years later we're still fighting the same fight," Wiltz, who grew up in 1960s Louisiana, told her son. 

"But this does look different," the son replied. "I think finally people are starting to say enough is enough. The way he died, it's right there shown on national TV for all eyes to see. There's no, 'Oh, what happened before?' I think now everybody's starting to see that this is a problem."

Angel Kirby was one of the first people to walk past the casket on Monday. She said she was moved by the beauty and dignity of Floyd's remembrance in contrast to the inhumanity he experienced. Kirby, a Houston school district administrator, said a prayer while standing in line.

"I prayed for the country to come back together as one, " she said. "We've seen us at our best, and this is an example of us at our worst."

The brutality of Floyd's death moved her husband to have a tense exchange with neighbors who had posted a double-sided Trump sign on their lawn. They love their neighbors and have spent many good times together, but something about the sign triggered him, Kirby said.

The Kirbys think the president is divisive; they ran down the history of the Central Park Five and Trump's role in that saga to their friends. The two families did not agree, but they chose to respect each other, she said. The neighbors moved the sign from the front yard to their flower bed.

George Smith, of Philadelphia, drove to Houston with Brown, wanting to attend Floyd's viewing after years of never wanting to talk about race or participate in any protest. The 28-year-old banker said he was afraid of how his built-up frustration might cause him to lash out. 

"I just got tired" of watching a surge of hashtags and slogans melt into complacency after similar atrocities, Smith said. Because of Floyd, he said he is newly committed to fighting racism.

"This is the beginning of me walking the walk and talking the talk," Smith said. 



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