What many called the random, brutal and callous murder of an unarmed man—George Floyd—on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn., at the hands of police officers, unleashed a torrent of condemnation nationwide after the incident. The charges filed against four officers in the case were characterized as a long overdue racial and criminal justice reckoning.
But it wasn’t, it was public condemnation, which is a long way from conviction. And public condemnation doesn’t mean an officer will be charged, let alone convicted and sent to jail.
For months, millions of people, young and old, rallied, marched and protested on the streets of America’s cities, towns and villages calling for a change in the way policing is done. They demanded an end to the spate of state-sanctioned murders, police brutality, the over-policing and the occupation of Black neighborhoods as well as police accountability and responsibility.
Now, almost a year later, Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while he was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground, is on trial, charged with second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder.
As jury selection continued in the Floyd trial, the Minneapolis City Council approved a historic $27 million settlement with the family on the one-year anniversary of the Louisville, Ky., fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, whose death also brought condemnation but no convictions and not even charges against the cops who shot and killed her during a no knock raid.
While the Minneapolis settlement did not admit culpability, City Council President Lisa Bender offered condolences to Mr. Floyd’s family after the vote.
“No amount of money can ever address the intense pain or trauma caused by this death to George Floyd’s family or to the people of our city,” she said. “Minneapolis has been fundamentally changed by this time of racial reckoning and this city council is united in working together with our community, and the Floyd family to equitably reshape our city of Minneapolis.”
“When George Floyd was horrifically killed on May 25, 2020, it was a watershed moment for America,” said Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump. “It was one of the most egregious and shocking documentations of an American citizen being tortured to death by a police officer … one of the worst ever witnessed in history.”
America has seen such watershed racial moments before: The brutal beating, torture and shooting of Black teenager Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Miss., and his disfigured body in an open casket helped ignite the modern civil rights movement.
No one was ever jailed for murdering him.
Cops are rarely charged, much less convicted for killing Blacks. Most often, law enforcement has been allowed to kill, maim and injure Black people with impunity. So there is widespread concern that Mr. Chauvin will walk even though Mr. Floyd’s death was captured on videotape. A Black juror was removed from the case March 18 by defense lawyers for Mr. Chauvin and a judge denied a defense request to move the case out of the Minneapolis area.
Despite protests last summer, talk of justice and accountability and corporations airing commercials about inclusion, Black contributions, and Black struggle, police brutality and other egregious racist behavior continues.
Rochester, New York
In Rochester, New York, the Rev. Myra Brown, pastor of Spiritus Christi Church, said residents in her city are grappling with a grand jury verdict that allowed the police officers involved in Daniel Prude’s death to walk free.
For almost six months, the Rochester Police Department and Rochester city officials hid a videotape from public view which showed how police officers treated 41-year-old Daniel Prude as he suffered a mental breakdown. Mr. Prude’s encounter with the police took place at 3 a.m. on the morning of March 23—a full two months before the death of George Floyd.
The Black father of five was naked in the street in upstate New York. He pleaded he could not breathe as police had handcuffed and pinned him to the ground, then placed a mesh mask over his face. Police say he was spitting on them. Authorities said Mr. Prude later died of asphyxiation.
Police body camera footage of the arrest sparked outrage when it was published in September, prompting days of protests and accusations of a cover-up by city officials.
“Our community is really reeling from this. We are disgusted, angry, frustrated with this outcome,” said Rev. Brown, a leading voice in efforts to advocate for and bring about racial justice. “The strategy across the country is to give us a Black attorney general to pursue justice. But we forget that they are politicians.
“I was deeply, deeply disappointed. I have no confidence in the grand jury process. The phrase is that you can indict a ham sandwich, except when it concerns Black and Brown people.”
The encounter and its aftermath escaped public attention until Sept. 2, 2020, when Mr. Prude’s family and their family attorney released the videotape along with police reports. The videotape and police denials triggered protests.
Rev. Brown gave protestors sanctuary in her church when cops fired pepper spray and pepper bullets at them and at her church and released police dogs on peaceful protestors. She is one of the elders who put their bodies between the cops and protestors. She served as a mediator in sometimes tense negotiations between protest leaders, the mayor and other city officials.
“Cops surrounded protestors, called it an unlawful gathering,” she said, recalling demonstrations last year. “This was a tactic to intimidate. They targeted protestors and said if we didn’t disperse, we’d be arrested even though we have a constitutional right to protest. Police criminalize the community as if marching and protesting is against the law. It is an injustice that shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
“We live in a racist, White supremacist system and the blueprint of oppression has been killing Black people.”
Rev. Brown was unhappy with the way New York Attorney General Letitia James presented the grand jury case. Ms. James is a Black woman. The grand jury refused to charge any officer in the death. “She had a meeting with us. We asked her why she only put one charge, she made it sound as if ethically she couldn’t bring charges,” said Rev.
Brown, who served the faith community for more than 25 years in various capacities before being named pastor in 2018. “They focused on excitable delirium which is not recognized by the medical community but is used by police departments,” she said. “If (the attorney general) used this argument, that’s suspicious to us.”
Rev. Brown said Rochester’s White residents are generally conservative and White lawmakers are unwilling to put their support behind policies or programs that would significantly shift the current policing paradigm for fear of upsetting their constituents.
She also rebuked the grand jury process.
“The systems stops working for us,” she explained soberly. “With a grand jury of 16 White and three Black people, it says we have a system that has a transparent preference for Whiteness when it comes to dispensing justice. That demographic and racial composition will never get us justice. The system is set up to fail us.”
Rev. Brown said the way forward for her and others seeking substantive change is what she calls a policing blueprint.
“I proposed to the mayor (Lovely Warren) to design a policing blueprint,” she said. “The policing blueprint given to us is from 1819. Slavery was legal until 1827. It was not designed to give us public safety or protection under the law.”
“What I said to the mayor is put out a call for a citywide discussion to change things,” Rev. Brown said. “It may be a symposium of activists, politicians, the faith community, and retired officers not so connected to the institution that they’re not beholden to it, the Police Accountable Board and members of the United Church Ministries.”
Mayor Warren is Black. She was recently criticized for withholding the truth in the Prude case. An investigation into the official response to Mr. Prude’s death faulted the mayor and former police chief for keeping critical details of the case secret for months and lying to the public about what they knew.
The report, commissioned by Rochester’s city council and made public March 12, said Mayor Warren lied at a September press conference when she said it wasn’t until August that she learned officers had physically restrained Mr. Prude during the arrest that led to his death.
Mayor Warren was told that very day that officers had used physical restraint, the report said, and by mid-April she, then-Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and other officials were aware Mr. Prude had died as a result and the officers were under criminal investigation.
“In the final analysis, the decision not to publicly disclose these facts rested with Mayor Warren, as the elected mayor of the city of Rochester,” said the report, written by New York City-based lawyer Andrew G. Celli Jr. “But Mayor Warren alone is not responsible for the suppression of the circumstances of the Prude arrest and Mr. Prude’s death.” A special counsel to the city administration disputed claims that Ms. Warren lied.
The mayor spoke based on the facts known to her at the time and if what she said wasn’t true it was because then police chief Singletary had misled her, Carrie Cohen said. Chief Singletary, who retired last year, is also Black. Mr. Singletary’s characterization “likely impacted” how city officials viewed the matter, the report said.
Additionally, the report said, a city lawyer in August discouraged Mayor Warren from publicly disclosing Mr. Prude’s arrest or commencing disciplinary action against the officers after she viewed body camera video of the encounter for the first time.
The lawyer incorrectly stated that the city was barred from taking action against the officers while the state attorney general’s office was investigating Mr. Prude’s death, the report said. The officers held him down for about two minutes until he stopped breathing. He was taken off life support a week later.
The report also confirms Rochester police commanders urged city officials to hold off on publicly releasing the body camera footage of Mr. Prude’s suffocation death because they feared violent blowback if it came out during protests over the police killing of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis. Mr. Prude’s children have since filed a lawsuit over their father’s death.
The community has been roiled by anger and protests since officers from the Aurora Police Department detained 23-year-old Elijah McClain when he was walking home from a convenience store on August 30, 2019. They held him down by the neck. When he fell unconscious, fire department paramedics injected him with a dose of ketamine, a tranquilizer. Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.
An independent panel investigating the McClain death released a deeply critical report saying the officer had no justification to stop Mr. McClain and blamed officers for unnecessarily escalating their use of force, including using a neck hold twice in order to render Mr. McClain unconscious. The report authors also decried fire department paramedics for their delay in helping Mr. McClain, then injecting him with a dose of ketamine that would have subdued a much larger person. In November 2019, Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason declined to file criminal charges, announcing that there wasn’t enough evidence that the officers had broken the law despite their use of force.
Elijah McClain’s death unleashed angry protests. Local activist Lillian House, one of the organizers of several protests, said she has incurred the wrath of police brass and law enforcement. “He was in his own neighborhood. It sounds like he was dancing and someone thought he looked suspicious,” Ms. House told The Final Call. “He was grabbing an iced tea and coming back home. Within 10 seconds, they put hands on him … paramedics stood there for 6, 7 minutes. Cops put him in a chokehold twice and once when they were on top of him.”
“He was 5 feet 6, 145 pounds. They said he was resisting. McClain had been through hell. What they did was so vicious and racist. Not firing officers is an insult to the community. One cop was fired for mocking Elijah. The officers and two paramedics are still on the job. It was a murder. They should be fired … .”
The panel said the investigation by local police detectives “raised serious concerns” for failing to rigorously question the officers involved and failing to examine the circumstances of Mr. McClain’s death.
Ms. House said those in the law enforcement have escaped responsibility and characterized the police department as “corrupt.”
“No one has challenged the Aurora Police Department. We’ve been trying to bring light to this case since 2019,” said Ms. House. “We invited protestors to come to Aurora. All of these cops are so furious about protests and being held accountable. They are used to getting away with murder and terrorism … .”
She said she is paying a price for pushing against police brutality and murders. She faces arraignment on 25 charges—including 12 felonies—and faces 48 years in prison. Ms. House is one of five activists who she said “are facing serious charges.”
“My arraignment is coming up. I’ve already served more time than these cops,” Ms. House observed. “I spent eight days in near-solitary confinement. The whole thing is an intimidation scheme,” said Ms. House, an independent activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “I found out through the report that they have been surveilling us. They put all these resources and energy building a case against us. They sought to repress the protests, calling our allies and trying to turn them against us. I heard from student protestors that they contacted their parents.
“There’s a lot of power in these departments. They used really dirty tactics. The report shows what we already know: that this was a wholly unjustified murder. The city is dedicated to maintaining the police department.”
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick in South Georgia on February 23, 2020, stunned the nation when law enforcement officials released a video of the shooting months later. An article in the New York Times, the release of a video of the shooting and widespread furor and anger from civil rights activists, lawmakers and celebrities precipitated the arrest of Gregory McMichael and his son Travis. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged the pair with murder and aggravated assault. The younger McMichael is said to have shot Mr. Arbery with a shotgun, GBI officials said.
The trio of deaths—Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Arbery—shined a harsh but familiar light on the police-involved and vigilante killings of the three victims, and illustrated the dangers faced by primarily unarmed Black men women and children.
The protests last summer, nationwide discussions about justice and accountability, corporations airing commercials about the importance of inclusion and Black contributions, what does that actually mean?
For Iman Ali, even as she advocates and fights for justice for her people in traditional terms, she is also employing a range of healing modalities for the Arbery family.
“I am helping the family with healing work. We don’t often hear about this aspect but it’s a long road,” said Ms. Ali, a Reiki Master and teacher, practitioner of transcendental meditation and integrative medicine. “I was here in the Brunswick, Golden Isle area. I couldn’t believe that it had happened in our backyard because this is a very quiet but a historical slave area. It just shocked me that it happened. I felt in my spirit that there was an ancestral uprising.”
“The family is trying their best to cope. They’re very hurt,” she explained. “They are a beautiful, spiritual, soulful family. You could hear it, being so fresh. Ahmaud’s mom had to move to North Carolina. The family is continuing to demand justice.”
“How can you have justice with no peace?” she asked. “People should examine or reexamine this, I believe we’re close to accepting the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s positions. We should follow his Teachings because we need our own territory where we can govern ourselves. There’s no other way to gain respect. We have to accept our own and be ourselves. He warned us and told us what would take place,” said Ms. Ali.
NOI Student Minister Demetric Muhammad agrees. “We need to overhaul how policing is done in our community,” said Minister Muhammad, a Memphis resident. “Often police officers have no organic connection or basis (to the community) and don’t know the cultural norms of Black life in America. What they know is only what they see in the movies or on TV. Implicit bias causes the heavy handed treatment of Black people. They need more retraining, learning Black history to get past the stereotypes of Black people as criminals and prostitutes.”
Min. Muhammad said Blacks are demanding that corrupt police are punished.
“We have to speak with one voice. It appears to be exclusively a Black community problem. Why don’t we hear police killing young Jewish or European immigrants or them going into ethnic enclaves and killing people?” asked Min. Muhammad, author of several books, including “How to Police the Black Community: Divine Guidance for Law Enforcement From the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.”
“They know how to punish with money and voting and have the ability to communicate internally within their groups … and establish difficult relationships. They allow these communities to police themselves.”
“Like most of these issues, it comes down to unity. Min. Farrakhan and the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad have encouraged us to come together. We could overcome the difficulties if we could have the same type of unity other communities have. We can learn from immigrants. We can look at models to build separate but interrelated communities. The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad said unity is a more potent weapon than a hydrogen bomb.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)