WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – A year after his killing unleashed a national reckoning over racial injustice, George Floyd’s relatives met on Tuesday with President Joe Biden at the White House and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to urge passage of police reform legislation in their loved one’s name.
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in handcuffs with a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes, became the face of a national movement challenging police brutality and bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.
His dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have echoed as a slogan in street demonstrations that convulsed the United States and the world last summer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Monday’s private Oval Office visit marked the first time any of Floyd’s family had been hosted at the White House, occupied since January by a Democratic administration.
Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, was widely criticized for political rhetoric seen as inflaming racial tensions heightened in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing.
Floyd’s relatives used their pilgrimage to Washington on the anniversary of his death to lobby Biden and Congress for enactment of legislation ensuring the just treatment of minorities by law enforcement.
In March, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, seeking to end contentious police tactics such as “choke holds,” while making it easier to sue individual police officers for unlawful conduct.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working to hammer out a compromise to win enough Republican support to ensure passage in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin margin of control.
“If you can make federal laws to protect the (national) bird, which is the bald eagle, you can make federal laws to protect people of color,” Floyd’s brother Philonise said in the White House driveway he after five other family members met with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
He described Biden as supportive and “a genuine guy.”
“He did let us know that he supports passing the bill, but he wants to make sure that is the right bill and not a rushed bill,” said Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams.
‘WE HAVE TO ACT’
Moments before departing the White House by helicopter a short time later for a flight back to his home state of Delaware, Biden told reporters he had spoken to negotiators on the bill and was “hopeful that sometime after Memorial Day we’ll have an agreement.”
“We have to act,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. “The battle for the soul of America has been a constant push and pull between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart.”
Senator Tim Scott, the lead Republican negotiator, told reporters on Tuesday that a main point of contention remained qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields individual police officers from lawsuits in certain circumstances.
Republicans oppose provisions in the bill rolling back such immunity, while many liberal Democrats say they would only support a bill that abolished it.
“We have a long way to go still, but it’s starting to take form,” Scott said.
The anniversary of Floyd’s death also coincided with the swearing in of Kristen Clarke as assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, putting her in charge of an investigation into possible patterns of police misconduct in Minneapolis.
Her nomination was narrowly approved by the Senate on Tuesday, making her the first woman, and the first Black woman, confirmed to that post.
Speaking to reporters after the swearing-in ceremony at the Justice Department, Harris, the first woman and first woman of color elected as vice president, credited Floyd’s family for assuming roles as advocates for justice.
“They have shown such dignity in the face of such an atrocious tragedy,” Harris said. “George Floyd should be alive today.”
FLOYD’S LIFE CELEBRATED
In Minneapolis, a foundation created in Floyd’s memory by some in his family organized an afternoon of music and food in a park near the downtown courthouse where Derek Chauvin, the former officer, was convicted last month of murdering Floyd.
Chauvin, 45, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced on June 25. Three other officers at the scene have pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting Chauvin, and will go on trial next year. The Minneapolis Police Department fired all four officers the day after Floyd was killed.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey joined activists in the downtown park for nine minutes and 29 seconds of silence in memory of Floyd’s murder.
Later on Tuesday at the Minneapolis traffic corner set aside as George Floyd Square after he died there, crowds gathered for music and children’s activities ahead of a candlelight vigil planned in his honor at the spot where he was slain.
Video of the killing, recorded by teenage onlooker Darnella Frazier, went viral after it was uploaded to social media, sparking worldwide outrage. Floyd had been suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes when he was arrested.
Across the country, about 300 demonstrators marking the anniversary held a boisterous but peaceful march in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, chanting: “No justice, no peace.” A separate group of 300 to 400 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan.
Legislation has been pursued in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to increase the accountability or oversight of police, and 24 states have enacted new laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Susan Cornwell in Washington, Jonathan Allen in New York, Nick Pfosi in Minneapolis and Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Roselle Chen in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)