HOUSTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of mourners streamed into a Texas church on Monday to honor African American George Floyd, who died in police custody two weeks ago, as pressure mounted in Congress and across the United States for sweeping reforms to the justice system.
Demonstrators’ anger over the May 25 death of Floyd, 46, is giving way to a growing determination to make his case a turning point in race relations and a lightning rod for change in the way police departments function across the country.
Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, the white officer accused of killing him, knelt on his neck for nine minutes in Minneapolis. A bystander’s cellphone captured the scene as Floyd pleaded with the officer, choking out the words, “I can’t breathe.”
The incident triggered two weeks of protests in U.S. cities, deepening a political crisis for President Donald Trump, who repeatedly threatened to order active duty troops onto the streets to put an end to bursts of looting and vandalism.
In Houston, where Floyd grew up, American flags fluttered along the route to the Fountain of Praise church as hundreds of people, wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, formed a procession. Some bowed their heads, while others made the sign of the cross when they reached Floyd’s casket.
“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.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is challenging the Republican Trump in a Nov. 3 election, met 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 on Twitter. Floyd will be buried on Tuesday.
In Washington, Democrats in Congress unveiled legislation that would make lynching a hate crime and allow victims of misconduct and their families to sue police for damages in civil court, ending a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.
Their 134-page bill also would ban chokeholds and require the use of body cameras by federal law enforcement officers, restrict the use of lethal force, and facilitate independent probes of police departments that show patterns of misconduct.
It does not call for the funding of police departments to be cut or abolished, as some protesters and activists have sought. But lawmakers called for spending priorities to change.
“We have confused having safe communities with hiring more cops on the street … when in fact the real way to achieve safe and healthy communities is to invest in these communities,” Senator Kamala Harris, seen as a potential running-mate to Biden, said at a briefing.
Trump, who has portrayed himself as a defender of law and order during the protests, “is appalled by the defund-the-police movement,” White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told a media briefing. She said Trump was weighing various proposals in response to Floyd’s death.
Biden does not support the movement to defund police departments as a response to police brutality, but is in favor of the “urgent need” for reform, a spokesman for his presidential campaign said on Monday.
Democrats vowed to bring the legislation in coming weeks to the floor of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. The support of the Republican-controlled Senate and Trump would be needed for the measure to become law if it passes the House.
Huge weekend crowds gathered across the country and in Europe. The high-spirited atmosphere 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.
Police killings have sparked calls for reforms here and renewed calls for racial equality as the United States reopens after weeks of unprecedented lockdowns for the coronavirus pandemic.
Bail for Chauvin, the officer who was captured on video with his knee on Floyd’s neck, was raised to $1.25 million, from $1 million, during a court hearing in Minneapolis on Monday, Minnesota’s Star Tribune reported.
Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter, appeared on video link, handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit and sitting at a small table.
Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. All four officers have been fired.
Tensions have been running high in the Minnesota city. A majority of the members on the city council pledged on Sunday to abolish the police department in favor of a community-led safety model, a step that was unthinkable before Floyd’s death.
Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston, David Morgan and Susan Heavey in Washington, Nathan Layne and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Howard Goller