It was a death that shook America. One year on, as the nation mourned George Floyd’s murder by police, his family brought a conversation about racial injustice to the White House.
Amid frustration over lack of police reform, Joe Biden hosted Floyd’s brother Philonise, seven-year-old daughter Gianna and other family members at a private meeting on Tuesday.
The sombre anniversary was an opportunity for the president, whose own family has been haunted by grief, to demonstrate an empathy many found lacking in his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters: “I think a lot of the meeting will be him listening to them and hearing from them on what they want the path forward to look like.
“He really wanted it to be a private meeting because he has a personal relationship and he wanted to hear how they’re doing, give them an update on his efforts to sign a bill into law and ensure there is long-overdue accountability.”
Floyd died on 25 May 2020 when the then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes, despite the 46-year-old African American repeatedly saying he could not breathe.
The killing, captured on video by a bystander, triggered months of protests at systemic racism and policing. Chauvin was convicted of murder and is awaiting sentencing.
Barack Obama, the first Black US president, issued a statement on Tuesday that acknowledged hundreds more Americans have died in encounters with police but also expressed hope.
“Today, more people in more places are seeing the world more clearly than they did a year ago.” he said. “It’s a tribute to all those who decided that this time would be different – and that they, in their own ways, would help make it different.”
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, noted how the “ stomach-churning video” of Floyd’s death rippled beyond the US.
“The name of George Floyd was chanted in Rome, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Mexico City,” he said. “As recently as this weekend, professional soccer players in the [English] Premier League knelt before the game in support of the global movement against racism touched off by George Floyd.
“This was not only a fight for justice for one man and his family, who I’ve had the privilege to meet with, but a fight against the discrimination that Black men and women suffer at the hands of state power, not just here in America but around the globe.”
But introspection and reckoning across business, culture and society has not yet been matched by legislative action. Biden campaigned on a promise to address four centuries of racial oppression but has run into the grind of partisan politicking in Congress.
He had set a deadline of Tuesday for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which contains reforms such as a ban on chokeholds, to become law. It passed the House of Representatives in March but is faltering in the Senate where Republicans object to a provision ending qualified immunity, which shields officers from legal action by victims and families for alleged civil rights violations.
Family members including Philonise, Gianna and her mother Roxie Washington visited the Capitol earlier on Tuesday. At a photo opportunity, Philonise Floyd said: “Today is the day that he set the world in a rage. We all said enough is enough … We need meaningful legislation … We need it on Biden’s desk. We need to get this taken care of.”
He leaned towards Gianna and asked: “Your dad is going to do what?”
She replied: “Change the world.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said: “People around the world flooded the streets for days and weeks, millions of people. Gianna said, ‘My daddy will change the world.’ And indeed that change is coming true.”
Karen Bass, a Democrat and the lead House negotiator, added: “Twelve months ago the world witnessed the horrific torture and murder of George Floyd. We commemorate that day today by reflecting on all that has happened, not just in our nation but in the world, in regard to an issue that African Americans have fought against – and struggled for change – for generations.
“Within 30 days after George Floyd’s murder, we passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act at the request of his daughter, who said she hoped that her father will never be forgotten. And he absolutely will not.”
Bass renewed her commitment to compromise with Republicans.
“We will get this bill on President Biden’s desk,” she said. “What is important is that … it’s a substantive piece of legislation, and that is far more important than a specific date. We will work until we get the job done. It will be passed in a bipartisan manner.”
Some observers have suggested that Biden should use his bully pulpit to push Congress harder. The anniversary came as a warning that patience could wear thin.
In an interview on SiriusXM radio, family lawyer Ben Crump said: “What we hope to do at all of those meetings is to continue to say, ‘Let’s don’t lose this moment.’ It’s been 57 years since we’ve had meaningful police reform. And this is our moment to finally pass some federal legislation with teeth in it.
“The whole world is watching to see if America will act and not just talk a good game when it comes to George Floyd’s legacy and having meaningful police reform.”
Legislation has been pursued in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to increase accountability or oversight of police; 24 states have enacted new laws.
Floyd was honoured across America on Tuesday. In Minneapolis, a foundation created in his memory organised an afternoon of music and food in a park near the downtown courtroom where Chauvin stood trial. Nine minutes of silence were observed. Later, mourners were to gather for a candlelight vigil.