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George Floyd mourned and celebrated at Minneapolis memorial

The first of three memorial gatherings for George Floyd was held Thursday in Minneapolis, to mourn the man whose death has empowered a national movement to call for change in policing methods and a national dialogue on race.

Family, politicians, celebrities and activists attend first of 3 memorials for Floyd over the next week

Some of the memorable moments from the first memorial service for George Floyd, the black man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during his arrest. 2:57

The mural of George Floyd projected above his golden coffin, where mourners kneeled and cried, paused and prayed at his memorial service Thursday, had a simple message: "I can breathe now."

Celebrities, civil rights activists, politicians and family members of Floyd gathered in Minneapolis to pay their respects to the man whose death at the hands of police has sparked protests nationwide and calls for an end to racial injustice. Mourners wore masks and many bumped elbows, rather than hug or shake hands, at the memorial occurring amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But it was not the coronavirus that killed Floyd, the family's attorney Ben Crump said, it was the "pandemic of racism and discrimination."

Floyd's brother and other family members told personal stories about dancing, playing football, cooking and enjoying life together. They said he was known by the endearing nickname "Big George."

"George, he was like a general," brother Philonise Floyd said. "Every day he would walk outside there would be a line of people wanting to greet him.... He was powerful, man. He had a way with words.... Everybody loved George."

WATCH | Philonise Floyd remembers his brother: 

Philonise Floyd remembers growing up with his brother George, including eating banana and mayonnaise sandwiches, and realizing how many people loved him. 5:31

Projected above the pulpit inside the sanctuary was the blue and orange mural that's been painted at the site of a makeshift memorial in the neighbourhood where Floyd pleaded for air on May 25 as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed black man's neck for nearly nine minutes even after Floyd stopped moving.

A small band and choir sang the gospel classic Goin' Up Yonder as mourners gathered.

Sharpton eulogy

Rev. Jesse Jackson entered and prayed for several moments over Floyd's casket. Others followed his lead, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Jackson and Klobuchar greeted each other and spoke for a few minutes, before heading to their seats.

Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy. During his remarks, Sharpton revealed plans to hold a commemorative march on Washington in August as part of a push for federal policing reforms.

"George Floyd should not be among the deceased," Sharpton said. "He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American criminal justice malfunction. He died because there has not been the corrective behaviour that has taught this country that if you commit a crime, it does not matter if you wear blue jeans or a blue uniform, you must pay for the crime you commit."

Guests gather at North Central University in Minneapolis Thursday before a memorial service for George Floyd. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

Others in attendance for the memorial included U.S. representatives Ilhan Omar, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Ayanna Pressley and Joyce Beatty; rappers T.I., with his wife, Tiny, Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson; comedians Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish; and actor Marsai Martin.

Those gathered stood in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Floyd was on the ground under the control of police.

"When we fight for the George Floyds of the world — and more importantly, the unknown George Floyds of the world — we are helping America be America for all Americans," said Crump, who listed off the names of other African American men and women killed by police.

Accountability legislation

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat who represents Floyd's native Houston and attended the service, said that she and other lawmakers on Thursday introduced police accountability legislation named after Floyd. The measure calls for improved training for police departments and standards for how the use of deadly force and misconduct are investigated, among other aims.

"We have put a stop sign in front of America — there will be no more" unchecked killing by police, Jackson-Lee told The Associated Press. "I will never forget the words `I can't breathe.' America cannot allow people to die in the 21st century."

Floyd, 46, died May 25 in police custody. Demonstrations in cities across the United States to condemn racism and police abuses remained large, but have generally been marked by fewer violent incidents the past two nights than those that occurred on the weekend and Monday night.

Watch | Protesters vow to continue fight for justice after George Floyd's death:

After nine days of demonstrations, protesters say they’re continuing to fight for justice and not only for George Floyd. 3:11

Floyd, who was six-foot-six, once harboured dreams of playing professional basketball but had sometimes struggled to find employment in recent years. Police say they responded to a call that alleged Floyd had passed a counterfeit bill.

Officers in court

Three of the four fired officers now charged in his death made their first court appearance as the memorial was underway. A judge set bail at $750,000 apiece for Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, who are each charged with aiding and abetting murder. 

They did not enter pleas, which is typical of a first appearance in Minnesota courts. 

The fourth officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. 

On Capitol Hill on Thursday morning, several Democrats in Congress gathered silently for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time it has been reported that Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck while he drew his final breaths.

Floyd to also be mourned in birthplace, previous hometown

After Thursday's service, Floyd's body will travel to Raeford, N.C., where he was born, for a public viewing and private family service Saturday. There will also be a large service Monday in Houston, where Floyd spent most of his life, which will include addresses from Sharpton, Crump and Rev. Remus E. Wright, the family pastor. A private burial will follow.

WATCH l Wednesday night protest in U.S. largely peaceful:

Calls for justice rang out for a ninth day in cities across the United States in mostly peaceful demonstrations.   2:29

Across the U.S., more than 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with unrest, a tally by The Associated Press shows. More than a dozen deaths have been reported, though the circumstances in many cases are still being sorted out.

With files from CBC News

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