HOUSTON (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners braved sweltering Texas heat on Monday to view the casket of George Floyd, whose death after a police officer knelt on his neck ignited worldwide protests against racism and calls for reforms of U.S. law enforcement.
American flags fluttered along the route to the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, where Floyd grew up, as throngs of mourners wearing face coverings to prevent spread of the coronavirus formed a procession to pay final respects.
Solemnly filing through the church in two parallel lines, some mourners bowed their heads, others made the sign of the cross or raised a fist, as they paused in front of Floyd’s open casket. More than 6,300 people took part in the visitation, which ran for more than six hours, church officials said.
Fire officials said several people, apparently overcome by heat exhaustion while waiting in line, were taken to hospitals.
“I’m glad he got the send-off he deserved,” Marcus Williams, a 46-year-old black resident of Houston, said outside the church. “I want the police killings to stop. I want them to reform the process to achieve justice, and stop the killing.”
The public viewing came two weeks to the day after Floyd’s death was captured by an onlooker’s video. As a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, an unarmed and handcuffed Floyd, 46, lay face down on a Minneapolis street, gasping for air and groaning for help, before falling silent.
The case was reminiscent of the 2014 killing of another African American, Eric Garner, who died after being placed by police in a chokehold while under arrest in New York City.
The dying words of both men, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry in a global outpouring of rage, drawing crowds by the thousands to the streets despite health hazards from the coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstrations stretched into a third week on Monday.
“Even though it is a risk to come out here, I think it has been a very positive experience. You hear the stories, you feel the energy,” Benedict Chiu, 24, told Reuters at an outdoor memorial service in Los Angeles.
“I’m here to protest the mistreatment of our black bodies. It’s not going to stop unless we keep protesting,” said Erica Corley, 34, one of hundreds attending a gathering in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.
As the public viewing unfolded in Houston, Derek Chauvin, 44, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck and is charged with second-degree murder, made his first court appearance in Minneapolis by video link. A judge ordered his bail raised from $1 million to $1.25 million.
Chauvin’s co-defendants, three fellow officers accused of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder, were previously ordered held on $750,000 to $1 million bond each.
All four were dismissed from the police department the day after Floyd’s death.
Unleashed amid pent-up anxiety and despair inflicted by a pandemic that has hit minority communities especially hard, the demonstrations have reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and thrust demands for racial justice and police reforms to the top of America’s political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Protests in a number of U.S. cities were initially punctuated by episodes of arson, looting and clashes with police, deepening a political crisis for President Donald Trump as he repeatedly threatened to order the military into the streets to help restore order.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is challenging the Republican Trump in the election, met with Floyd’s relatives for more than an hour in Houston on Monday, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump.
“He listened, heard their pain and shared in their woe,” Crump said. “That compassion meant the world to this grieving family.” Floyd was due to be buried on Tuesday.
In Washington, Democrats in Congress unveiled legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and to allow victims of police misconduct and their families to sue law enforcement for damages in civil court, ending a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.
The bill also would ban chokeholds and require the use of body cameras by federal law enforcement officers, place new restrictions on the use of lethal force and facilitate independent probes of police departments that show patterns of misconduct.
Some departments are already taking action. On Monday, the Los Angeles Police Commission said the city’s police department had agreed to an immediate moratorium on training and using chokeholds.
The legislation does not call for police departments to be de-funded or abolished, as some activists have demanded. But lawmakers called for spending priorities to change.
Trump pledged to maintain funding for police departments, saying 99% of police were “great, great people.”
“There won’t be defunding, there won’t be dismantling of our police,” Trump told a roundtable of state, federal, and local law enforcement officials at the White House.
Biden opposes the movement to defund police departments but supports the “urgent need” for reform, a spokesman for his presidential campaign said.
A high-spirited atmosphere that prevailed over a series of mass demonstrations during the weekend was marred late on Sunday when a man drove a car into a rally in Seattle and then shot and wounded a demonstrator who confronted him.
The suspect, Nikolas Fernandez, told police he thought he could drive safely through the crowd, when his car was surrounded by protestors, a police report said. He was charged on Monday with assault.
Separately, a man described by prosecutors as an admitted member of the Ku Klux Klan and “propagandist for Confederate ideology,” was arrested on suspicion of driving his pickup truck into a rally near Richmond, Virginia, late on Sunday.
Also in Richmond, a judge issued a 10-day injunction blocking plans by the state governor to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
For a graphic on Floyd’s death sparks worldwide protests:
For a graphic on Weapons of Control: What U.S. police are using to corral, subdue and disperse demonstrators:
For Special Report on How union, Supreme Court shield Minneapolis cops:
For a graphic on Before the court: A united front takes aim at qualified immunity:
Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston, David Morgan and Susan Heavey in Washington, Nathan Layne and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York, Andrea Shalal in Silver Spring, Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brad Brooks in Austin; Writing by Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Lincoln Feast.