After hours of standing outside The Fountain of Praise church talking to people on Monday—between noon and 6 p.m. more than 6,000 would file through the sanctuary to pay their respects to George Floyd, the Houston man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked national outrage—I finally got in line myself.
A few weeks ago, before Floyd’s death on May 31, I thought there was nothing in the world that would make me go out in public in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, here I was, shuffling through the line in the sweltering heat. I’d been here as a journalist since early Monday morning. I’d been talking to people in line all day about what had made them come out. Their reasons were ones I understood all too well.
Even growing up in the Houston suburbs, I was always aware that racism existed. I heard the racial slurs that people in my suburban neighborhood used, and dealt with the fact that letting my hair be natural would mean being made fun of at my suburban high school. Floyd’s story isn’t something that’s necessarily new for the black community, it has been more of a reminder of longstanding issues and the consequences of what happens when those issues remain unaddressed.
Still, I was here to simply report what was happening, I told myself all day. When Floyd’s golden casket had arrived that morning, my heart had smacked in my chest and I felt physically sick, but I pushed that feeling away. Yes, I was a young black woman, but that wasn’t supposed to be part of the story. I tried to stay neutral, even as those I talked to wept or almost shook with anger themselves.
“We have been tired for so many years from slavery on up until now,” La-Drickia Green from Port Arthur, told me. “It shouldn't take a live video for our voices to finally be heard back. I'm so glad that we have an opportunity to be heard, but it's not about being heard. It's about things being done.”
For Lori Landry, the site of Floyd in the casket caused her to have an outburst in the church. “It was another senseless life. They're just killing our people like flies,” she said, her voice straining with emotion. “This man, his life didn't need to be taken.”
Clarence Irvin Alexander, a truck driver, who grew up in Houston, was visibly shaken when he came out of the church. He’d stared down at Floyd’s body as he passed by, he told me. Alexander had also grown up in the Third Ward. “I’m here because it could have been me,” he explained.
Some Houstonians brought their children to the viewing. Apryl Sherrod, mother of two, had felt it was important that her kids be present both to honor Floyd and to show them the importance of making sure to stand up against any injustice. “I wanted to lay my support to the families and people who are suffering and hurting,” she said. “I wanted to show my sons this is actually how you effectively make change in this country.”
Elected officials turned out as well. I watched during the day as Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Gov. Greg Abbott and others paid their respects.
Moments before Abbott appeared, attendees entering the memorial began singing “This Little Light of Mine,” the spontaneous music only stopping when Abbott began to speak. He wore a denim mask with “8:46” on it (the amount of time the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck) and promised that Floyd’s death would lead to significant change. “This is the most horrific tragedy I’ve ever heard,” Abbott told the sweating crowd. “George Floyd is going to change the arc of the future of the United States. George Floyd has not died in vain.”
We all listened as Dave Washington, a trumpet player who drove in from New Orleans, played “Amazing Grace,” from a distance. Anguish and sorrow seemed to reverberate in every note. The crowd, already somber in the heat, absorbed the music, growing silent as he played. Washington had come to Houston to attend the viewing despite worries about the coronavirus, because he felt certain he was going to witness history, he’d told me earlier that day. “You know something, we have to make a stand, and I wanna do my part,” Washington said. “This is not just a viewing, this is a movement. We need to show out and show up.”
The line continued to move forward, and as the hours passed I continued to resist invitations to get in line myself. I listened to civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton lead a prayer that the next day’s funeral would stay focused on Floyd, but that what happened to him wouldn’t be forgotten.
I listened as one of Floyd’s brothers, Philonise, remembered eating banana-and-mayo sandwiches, and told of how proud they all were when Floyd had won an athletic scholarship to college. His voice broke and tears began streaming as he recalled how Floyd was always someone who encouraged him. “It just hurts a lot, to be here, to talk about him,” Philonise said, as Sharpton stepped forward and put his arms around the man.
I tried not to cry. I was here to report, not to be a part of the story, I told myself. The line continued to move through the church.
The sight of Floyd’s casket was too much for Christopher “Raheem” Smith. Like Floyd, Smith attended Jack Yates High School, and he’d known Floyd there, had looked up to him when Floyd was a star athlete at the school. “He didn’t have to die. They could have let him up,” Smith said, his voice shaking. “He called his mama twice and his mama been dead for two years. That's a cry for help. When I call for my mama, I'm in pain, something is wrong. If all lives mattered, George would still be here.”
Finally, as the public viewing began to wrap up, I made myself join the line. Someone took my temperature before I entered, and stickers had been placed on the floor to keep everyone at least six feet apart.
Within twenty minutes, I found myself inside the church, following the blue stickers that were leading me closer and closer to Floyd’s casket. The sanctuary was packed with flowers to the point the floral scent filled the space. It was cool inside, and there was soft music. Confusion and numbness filled my body as I approached the golden casket. “He didn’t have to die, but he did,” I thought, my stomach lurching. “He’s like me. This could happen to me.”
I didn’t want to see his face, to take in the reality of his still body, the proof of what happened in Minneapolis. But I made myself pause for just a moment, forcing myself to look at his face. Then I exited the building, passing a painting depicting Floyd with a gold halo over his head. As I stumbled out into the light, I gave in and let the tears fall.
The next day would be the star-packed funeral. Former Vice President Joe Biden would give a video address, having decided not to inconvenience Floyd’s family by attending in person. Sharpton would give a long and fiery sermon. Celebrities including Tiffany Haddish and Channing Tatum would reportedly be in attendance, and at the close crowds outside the private service would chant Floyd’s name, and I’d be there to see it all. But it was that moment in the sanctuary, where I saw his face, that I’ll never forget.