ATLANTA – Scores of mourners Tuesday paid their final respects to Rayshard Brooks at the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach, taking part in a funeral filled with historical echoes and a tragic sense that Black America has been through this all too many times before.
“Rayshard Brooks is the latest high-profile casualty in the struggle for justice and a battle for the soul of America. This is about him, but it is so much bigger than him,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, told the crowd, less than two weeks after the Black man was shot twice in the back by a white Atlanta police officer following a struggle in a fast-food parking lot.
Warnock recited a long list of names of Black people who died at the hands of police in recent years, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile and George Floyd, lamenting: “Sadly we’ve gotten too much practice at this.”
Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, dressed in white, sat surrounded by family and friends. Former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, both of whom have been mentioned as potential running mates for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, were among the mourners.
Most people dressed all in white, while some wore T-shirts with Brooks’ picture. Nearly everyone wore masks to protect against the coronavirus.
Brooks' killing June 12 came amid weeks of turbulent and sometimes violent protests across the U.S. over Floyd's death under a white Minneapolis officer's knee on May 25. In the aftermath of Brooks' death, the Atlanta police chief resigned, and protesters burned the Wendy's restaurant.
As the funeral was underway, authorities announced the arrest of a suspect in the fire, 29-year-old Natalie White — according to her lawyer, the same woman Brooks described to police on the night he was shot as his girlfriend.
The lawyer, Drew Findling, said White was distraught over Brooks’ death but was “absolutely not responsible for the fire,” saying the blaze was already underway when she was seen on video approaching the restaurant.
White has been charged with first-degree arson, according to online jail records.
The deaths of Floyd and Brooks have led to a groundswell of protests against racial inequality, a movement to take down Confederate statues and other symbols, and demands for the dismantling of police departments or the shifting of their funding toward social services.
“We are here because individuals continue to hide behind badges and trainings and policies and procedures rather than regarding the humanity of others in general and Black lives specifically,” the Rev. Bernice King, the civil rights leader’s daughter, told the crowd at the funeral.
She noted ruefully that the killing took place in Atlanta, the “Black mecca” and “the city that is supposed to be ‘too busy to hate.’”
King, who was a child when her father was assassinated in 1968, told the mourners she was at the church for “what feels like an all-too-familiar moment.” She noted that Brooks’ death took place on the same date that NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi in 1963 and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa in 1964.
But in a powerful echo of her father’s “I Have a Dream” speech, she declared: “Rayshard Brooks’ death will not be in vain because justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Police body-camera video showed Brooks, 27, and officers having a calm and cooperative conversation for more than 40 minutes. A struggle erupted when police tried to handcuff Brooks for being intoxicated behind the wheel of his car at a Wendy's drive-thru. Brooks grabbed one of the officers' Tasers and fired it in their direction as he ran away.
Officer Garrett Rolfe, 27, was charged with murder and jailed without bail. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, was charged with aggravated assault, accused of stepping on Brooks’ shoulder as he lay dying on the pavement. Lawyers for both men said their clients’ actions were justified.
Rolfe was fired, and Brosnan was placed on desk duty.
An afternoon bail hearing for Rolfe that would have conflicted with the funeral was canceled by a judge. Under the law, crime victims and their families are entitled to be heard at such proceedings.
Actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry offered financial help for the service, Warnock said.
Outside the church, a large screen broadcast the service. Tyrone Harvey was among the few dozen who listened.
“First of all we have to vote. We have to vote. We can’t just rest on our laurels and say, ‘OK, we got Obama in there.’ And Obama’s gone. We’ve got to do better than that,” he said. “We’ve got to make some drastic changes.”
He added: “It’s vital. It’s important now.”
Warnock, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, urged people to keep marching and raising their voices to challenge racism and fight for change.
“I came here today to announce another march. I don’t want you to miss it. Make sure you show up for this march. It is happening on Nov. 3, 2020, at a voting booth near you,” he said to applause. “It’s a contradiction to march in the streets and not march on the voting booth.”
Meanwhile, a new poll that says nearly all Americans favor at least some change to the nation’s criminal justice system, and they overwhelmingly want to see clear standards on when police officers may use force and consequences for those who cross the line.
The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research said 29% think the criminal justice system needs “a complete overhaul,” 40% say it needs “major changes,” and 25% say it needs “minor changes.” Just 5% believe no changes are necessary.
News4Jax anchor Joy Purdy contributed to this report