‘George Floyd changed the world’: Public viewing in Houston honors the man behind the social justice movement

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Before his death made him a catalyst for global protests, George Floyd mentored young men at the Cuney Homes housing project in Houston’s Third Ward, urging them to quit violence and seek a better life.

When Tiffany Cofield, then a teacher at Hope Academy charter school in the Third Ward, struggled to connect with her most troubled students, she turned to Floyd for help. Floyd, who was 40 at the time, was disarmingly soft-spoken and listened to Cofield’s complaints and aspirations for the kids, she said.

More importantly, her students listened to Floyd. One boy was a talented football player struggling to keep his grades up. After Cofield recruited Floyd to talk to him, the student’s grades suddenly improved. He graduated high school and went on to play football at a junior college, Cofield said.

“There were times he had more of an impact than their own parents,” she said of Floyd’s relationship withher students. “They didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Memorials in Houston this week honored Floyd, 46, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. The former police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during the arrest was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and three other officers on the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Outrage over Floyd’s death unleashed worldwide demonstrations, including mostly peaceful protests in every state in the U.S. Last week, memorials were held in Minneapolis, where Floyd last lived, and North Carolina, where he was born.

Monday, Houston hosted a six-hour public visitation. Tuesday, a private funeral service was planned. Floyd is to be buried alongside his mother at Houston Memorial Gardens in Pearland. Al Sharpton is to deliver the eulogy.

To his friends in his childhood hometown of Houston, Floyd was remembered as a musician, a former student athlete and a loving brother and father.

“He was Third Ward,” Cofield said.

South of downtown Houston, the Third Ward has been home to freed slaves since the end of the Civil War and site of important landmarks such as Jack Yates Senior High School, the city’s second African American high school, and Emancipation Park, the first park for black Houstonians.

Floyd grew up in the neighborhood’s Cuney Homes, also known as “The Bricks,” a housing project flushed with gang violence and crime. Known as “Big Floyd,” he put out rap mix tapes with the influential hip hop collective Screwed Up Click in the 1990s and was a standout athlete at Jack Yates High School. By the time he left high school, he was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was known as someone who used his formidable size to break up fights.

Monday, residents and bystanders flocked to a mural of Floyd spread across the back wall of the Scott Food Store, across the street from the Cuney Homes. Some dropped balloons or lit religious candles. Others took selfies or dropped roses, their stems crammed into plastic water bottles.

Eva Fulghum, 37, touched Floyd’s likeness, made the sign of the cross, then wiped his face with a small red towel. “Wiping his tears,” she said.

Fulghum said she grew up with Floyd and knew him and his mother well. She said she hopes people will celebrate Floyd as much as mourn him.

“I don’t want people to grieve,” Fulghum said.

Bevan Walker, 50, was bicycling through Houston’s Third Ward Monday morning when he stopped at the mural on Nalle Street. He snapped a photo of it with his phone.

“There’s something special about his life and his family,” Walker said. “His name is going to be synonymous with justice for generations to come.”

An adjoining wall was filled with more than 200 names of people who have died in Houston’s Third Ward, many of them because of street violence.

Crowds began gathering Monday outside the Fountain of Praise church hours before Floyd’s memorial and public viewing. First in line was Jessica and Ricardo Mondragon, who left Austin with their son Lionel, 6, at 5 a.m. because they wanted to show respect for Floyd.

“He created a movement now, and everyone has to come together to show that police brutality is not right,” Jessica Mondragon said. “We all need to come together and be as one community, and we have a common enemy … police brutality.”

Also near the front of the memorial line were Marcus Brooks and Anthony Joubert, who, like Floyd, attended Yates High.

“We’re paying our respects, but there’s no respect for the black man,” Brooks said. “The kids are worried about whether they’ll be the next George Floyd. I’m worried about being the next George Floyd.”

Once inside, mourners staying about 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings streamed past Floyd’s open casket to pay their respects. Some knelt, some nodded a greeting and many bowed their heads before stepping aside. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott bowed his head for more than a minute before the golden casket.

Charlene Rosette drove in from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to attend the viewing. She said Floyd helped change hearts across the U.S.

“It took George Floyd to die on camera,” said Rosette, 55. “But George Floyd changed the world.”

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