Culture / Newsy

Powerful Scenes From George Floyd’s Massive Public Viewing — Everyday Houstonians Deliver a Message That All the Big-Time Politicians and Media Horde Cannot Match

Even Joe Biden's Out-of-the-Spotlight Caring and Governor Abbott's Strong Words Give Way to the Crowd's Collective Heart

BY // 06.08.20

Texas Governor Greg Abbott bowed his head and clasped his hands. U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee took a knee. Earl Smith Sr. found a few tears running down his face as he shuffled past the open casket of a man he never met.

“That could have been my son,” Smith Sr. tells PaperCity later, outside of The Fountain of Praise Church. “That’s what went through my mind as I saw him. That could be my son someday.”

Politicians showed up in force for the George Floyd public viewing on Monday in Houston. Many promised change with strong words. Others made powerful statements just by being there, making the contrast with those who did not show extra stark. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden met privately with the Floyd family at Lucille’s restaurant in the Museum District for more than an hour without making it a media event.

The worldwide news media was even more prevalent and noticeable, taking up almost one whole side of the lot. But ordinary Houstonians like Earl Smith Sr. said so much more than any of the politicians and big name TV reporters. They spoke with their tears, with their real emotions. They spoke with their heart. Most of all, they spoke with their sheer numbers.

Thousands and thousands showed up on the hottest day of 2020 in Houston so far. They lined up in that withering Texas heat and waited for hours in many cases to get into the church, where they’d only be allowed to spend a few minutes. They parked their cars a good ways away and took shuttle buses or found spots in the neighborhood and walked more than 10 minutes to wait in a line that snaked far around The Fountain of Praise Church’s large building and into the parking lot.

Some like Mary Gaines, who grew up in the same Third Ward neighborhood as George Floyd, knew the man whose murder on a Minneapolis street at the knee of a police officer sparked a tidal wave crying out for change, as Big Floyd. “He was like everybody’s big brother,” Gaines says.

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Most, like Earl Smith Sr,. had never met George Floyd. But they still came to honor him, to demand and hope for the day that brothers, sons and fathers like Floyd do not have to worry about getting the life choked out of them just because of the color of their skin. Once inside The Fountain of Praise Church, mourners were lined up on two sides of the aisle, where they could slowly walk down and wait their turn to spend a few moments in front of the open gold casket in which George Floyd’s body lay.

Gospel music played. A simple, short black line barrier between two medal poles prevented anyone from getting too close to the casket.

Thousands of Houstonians gathered to remember George Floyd as his body laid in state at The Fountain of Praise church, Monday June 8, 2020Family, rappers Bun B and Trae the Truth, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Thousands and thousands of Houstonians gathered to remember George Floyd as his body laid in state at The Fountain of Praise church. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

For most of the crowd, just being there was enough. Signing their name in one of the church’s condolences books — and there needed to be many of them, set up on folding tables outside so everyone could sign  — meant something.

“I had to be here,” Houstonian Chris Roberson says. “To show the world our pain. That’s a man lying in there who deserved to be treated like a man. Like a human being. He had a heart and hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. How he died. . .”

In all, 6,362 people were officially recorded as making it inside the church during the public viewing. That does not include those who showed and had to bow out of waiting because of the heat (several people suffered from heat exhaustion and the Houston Fire Department set up cooling station centers to treat those feeling any kind of distress). Or those that milled around outside the church building, just to be part of it.

University of Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson made sure to bring his entire team to the public memorial as a group. George Floyd grew up just blocks from UH’s ever-expanding campus in the Third Ward.

“First off, let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that a family lost a son, lost a brother, lost a father, lost a relative,” Sampson says. “We lost somebody from our community. So sometimes that gets hidden. But a family’s grieving. . .”

A candlelight vigil at Jack Yates High School, where George Floyd played football and basketball and dreamed of much more, later Monday night saw Floyd’s brothers and more of his friends speak. The private funeral back at The Fountain of Praise Church on Tuesday morning will be televised and streamed around the world before Floyd is laid to rest at Houston Memorial Gardens in Pearland, the same cemetery where his beloved mother Cissy is buried.

The man who had his life stolen from him by a cop on the pavement of a Minneapolis street will get heartfelt final goodbyes. But anyone with a conscience must hope that the tidal wave his death triggered pushes on and creates real, lasting change. And work to help make it happen.

Protesting as One

A 64-year-old Lumbee Indian who grew up in the segregated South, Kelvin Sampson’s seen plenty of racial injustice up close over the years. What he has never seen before is the diversity of the crowds protesting against police brutality and systematic racism.

“What’s this has done though is awaken the world,” Sampson says. “You know, I’m old enough to remember the race riots of the ’60s. The thing I remember about the race riots of the ’60s and the Rodney King ordeal, that was black people. It’s what you saw. You saw black people rioting against systematic racism. Now, you’re not only seeing them on CNN. You see people in Germany, people in London, people around the world, holding up signs — Black Lives Matter.

“This is what this is. We have a chance here.”

Sampson believes his much younger UH players can walk into a different world they help create. On this Monday, they bus over to George Floyd’s public viewing as a team. Quentin Grimes, Brison Gresham, Justin Gorham and the rest of the Cougar players on campus will walk into the church together. Another powerful symbol in a day full of them.

Sampson’s long worked to educate his players on racial issues, on the world in general. You’d hope that more parents in Houston — and around the world — are working to do that too.

This is anything but a typical memorial viewing. Most people do not show up in suits or dresses, but many still wear black. If they drive up Hillcroft Avenue, they pass a long row of American flags stuck in the grass median dividing the road. There is a large police presence, mostly directing traffic, on a day that is much more solemn than showy.

A number of the mourners have likely never been in this part of Houston before. Some bring their kids. A few as young as toddlers sit in strollers, or get carried on a parent’s hip. They line up after walking past a few street stands selling George Floyd and I Can’t Breathe T-shirts, and wait and wait to pay their respects.

Sometimes just showing up says more than a politician ever can.

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