By Jeff Mason and Nick Pfosi
WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) -Relatives of George Floyd met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday, lobbying for passage of police reform legislation in their loved one’s name on the first anniversary of his killing by a police officer since convicted of murder.
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in handcuffs with his neck pinned to a Minneapolis street under a white policeman’s knee, has become the face of a turbulent national reckoning with racial injustice and police brutality.
His dying words, “I can’t breathe,” were echoed as a slogan in widespread street demonstrations that convulsed the United States and the world last summer in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress has been working to hammer out legislation bearing his name, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, designed to overhaul U.S. law enforcement practices and make them more accountable.
“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 on the White House driveway he after five other members of the family met with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office.
“We have to act. We face an inflection point,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House afterward. “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.”
Earlier in the day, Floyd’s family, including his daughter, Gianna and two other brothers, met on Capitol Hill with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and other lawmakers who promised to secure passage of the legislation, currently stalled in Congress.
“We hope to bring comfort to your family by passing this final bill very soon,” Pelosi said.
Senator Tim Scott, the lead Republican negotiator on the measure, 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.
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 courtroom 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. The 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.
Later on Tuesday, mourners are set to gather for a candlelight vigil at the stretch of road where Chauvin knelt on the Floyd’s neck. Darnella Frazier, a teenage bystander, recorded the killing on her cellphone, uploading video to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) that horrified people around the world. Floyd had been suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
By the afternoon, small crowds were gathering at the intersection for a festive, sunny afternoon of music and children’s activities. A man set out paint ready to create a fresh mural in the square, which has been closed to most vehicle traffic for a year and is filled with flowers and art commemorating Floyd and other Black victims of police violence.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey were due to join activists in a city park for 9 minutes and 29 seconds of silence in memory of Floyd’s murder.
Demonstrations were planned in New York City. Earlier on Tuesday, Shaun Donovan, a Democratic candidate for mayor, was among a group of five protesters arrested for blocking traffic near a major tunnel into 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.
The laws have included the mandating of body-worn cameras for officers, banning neck restraints or making it easier for the public to see police officers’ disciplinary records.
Still, some activists say such measures, which in some jurisdictions have been on the books for years, are insufficient to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People civil rights group, said he also would meet with lawmakers to urge passage of the legislation.
“It’s hard to say if race relations, specifically, are better now than they were a year ago because change takes a lot of time,” Johnson said in an interview. “We can’t change everything in a few months or in a year. But there’s a there’s definitely a new tone in this country.”