ATLANTA (Reuters) – With tears, some laughter and memories of a generous young man who liked cowboy boots and cracking jokes, more than 200 friends and family members filled the pews of an historic Atlanta church on Tuesday for the funeral of Rayshard Brooks.
The death of Brooks, a Black man who was shot twice in the back by Atlanta police outside of a fast-food restaurant on June 12, heightened tensions over police brutality and racism that have raged since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
All wearing masks because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, mourners sat mostly together in the center of the cavernous Ebenezer Baptist Church, which limited attendance to allow for some measure of social distancing.
Dressed in white, Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, sat in the front pew with her daughter on her lap as the Martin Luther King, Sr. Choir performed the gospel anthem “Perfect Peace.” Preachers and loved ones called for healing and change.
Ambrea Mikolajczyk, a colleague and friend, described Brooks as a loving family man who looked out for others in the community, and that she believed his death would help pave the way for police reforms.
“There is a movement, a shift in the atmosphere. For this will be his legacy,” Mikolajczyk said. “You can never dim his light. It will forever shine so very bright.”
The site of the funeral was a testament to the gravity of the moment. Ebenezer Baptist was where Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the Black civil rights movement, once preached until his assassination in 1968.
King’s daughter, Bernice King, implored demonstrators to keep marching “until white supremacist policies and practices are no longer the order of the day”, and called for the payment of reparations to African Americans to atone for slavery.
“Rayshard Brooks’ death will not be in vain because justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” she said, invoking a line from her father’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington.
A crowd of dozens outside the church watched the service on a Jumbotron in the June heat and occasional rain.
Alec Summerfield, 27, a labor law attorney, from Baltimore, stood with a sign that read “#Justice for Rayshard Brooks.”
“The family doesn’t know me and they’re never going to know me, but I wanted to be here,” he said. “This is part of history, part of the struggle for justice.”
While some police supporters have called the shooting justified, citing video appearing to show Brooks firing a Taser at an officer before being shot, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has pursued the case aggressively. Howard has argued that Brooks was not a threat.
The Atlanta police officer who shot Brooks, Garrett Rolfe, 27, was fired and charged with murder, and he remains in jail without bond. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, was placed on administrative duty and charged with aggravated assault. The city’s police chief resigned.
At the funeral, Jymaco Brooks said he and his cousin had grown up poor but happy, with Rayshard showering those around him with love. He reminisced fondly about how Rayshard could irritate his wife, but be able to defuse tough situations through laughter.
“All he wanted to do was smile and crack jokes, dance a little bit,” said Brooks. “Throw away your grudges. My cousin didn’t live that way.”
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Grant McCool)