Across the United States, tensions are close to a boiling point because of a nationwide epidemic of police violence.
Protestors in Brooklyn Center, Minn., ignored the city’s curfew and defied a phalanx of armed, militarized police officers as they rallied to show their anger and frustration surrounding the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in April. In Chicago, demonstrators took to the streets after city officials released a police bodycam video of the shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
Days later unrest erupted in the streets of Oakland, demonstrations occurred in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities. Philadelphia activated the National Guard. Meanwhile Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and other localities geared up for protests, unrest and explosive anger.
The anger later turned to an element of joy. Jurors came back April 20 finding Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges of murder and manslaughter. The jury of six whites and six Black or multiracial people came back with its verdict after about 10 hours of deliberations over two days. The now-fired White officer was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Mr. Chauvin’s face was obscured by a Covid-19 mask, and little reaction could be seen beyond his eyes darting around the courtroom. His bail was immediately revoked. Sentencing will be in June.
Mr. Chauvin was booked soon after the verdicts were read into Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison, Oak Park Heights, about 25 miles east of Minneapolis. He is being held in a single cell under administrative segregation for his safety, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said.
President Joe Biden welcomed the verdict, saying Floyd’s death was “a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world” to see systemic racism.
But he warned: “It’s not enough. We can’t stop here. We’re going to deliver real change and reform. We can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this will ever happen again.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced April 21 that the Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis.
At a park next to the Minneapolis courthouse, a hush fell over a crowd of about 300 as they listened to the verdict on their cellphones. Then a great roar went up, with many people hugging, some shedding tears.
At the intersection where Floyd was pinned down, a crowd chanted, “One down, three to go!”—a reference to the three other fired Minneapolis officers facing trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder in Mr. Floyd’s death.
The verdict was read in a courthouse ringed with concrete barriers and razor wire and patrolled by National Guard troops, in a city on edge against another round of unrest—not just because of the Chauvin case but because of the deadly police shooting of a young Black man, Daunte Wright, in a Minneapolis suburb April 11.
The jurors’ identities were kept secret and will not be released until the judge decides it is safe to do so.
It is unusual for police officers to be prosecuted for killing someone on the job. And convictions are extraordinarily rare.
Out of the thousands of deadly police shootings in the U.S. since 2005, fewer than 140 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, according to data maintained by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Before the Chauvin verdict, only seven were convicted of murder.
The centerpiece of the case was the excruciating bystander video of Mr. Floyd gasping repeatedly, “I can’t breathe” and onlookers yelling at Chauvin to stop as the officer pressed his knee on or close to Floyd’s neck for what authorities say was 9 1/2 minutes, including several minutes after Mr. Floyd’s breathing had stopped and he had no pulse.
Prosecutors played the footage at the earliest opportunity, during opening statements, and told the jury: “Believe your eyes.” From there it was shown over and over, analyzed one frame at a time by witnesses on both sides.
The Minneapolis police chief quickly called it “murder” and fired all four officers, and the city reached a staggering $27 million settlement with Mr. Floyd’s family as jury selection was underway.
Medical experts for the prosecution said Mr. Floyd died of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, because his breathing was constricted by the way he was held down on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind him, a knee on his neck and his face jammed against the ground. He died on the street May 25, 2020.
The prosecution’s case also included tearful testimony from onlookers who said the police kept them back when they protested what was happening.
Random people stood by and begged the officer to stop kneeling on the victim’s neck, but they didn’t have power to do anything, prosecutor Steve Schleicher said April 19 as the trial drew to a close.
As jurors you have power to render justice, he said.
Mr. Chauvin kneeled on the victim’s neck after no pulse was found and EMT personnel arrived, the prosecutor said.
Mr. Chauvin had a duty to aid Mr. Floyd and he did not, Mr. Schleicher continued.
Prosecutor Schleicher laid out how Mr. Chauvin “chose pride over policing,” using “unnecessary, gratuitous and disproportionate” force.
“And he did it on purpose. This was not an accident. He did not trip and fall and find himself on George Floyd’s neck,” Mr. Schleicher said. “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”
Another case of Black death
With news of each new case of the state-sanctioned murders of primarily Black and Brown people, the anger, frustration, burden and the trauma people like Dixie Ann Black, retired Police Captain Sonia Pruitt and Iffat Walker feel deepens.
South Florida resident Dixie Ann Black said she has watched the trial sparingly but has read some snippets online and listened to reports on National Public Radio for fear of being repeatedly re-traumatized. Yet she said she has very strong opinions about the Chauvin trial and a visceral reaction to the police killing of Daunte Wright on April 11. He was unarmed and shot to death by a White female officer, who has since been charged, during a traffic stop.
“Oh my goodness. I find it very difficult to take. To me it’s an open-and-shut case. The whole world saw it. It’s not a matter of opinion. It comes down to interpretation,” Ms. Black said. “Even the fact that the trial has lasted this long is an insult. When you see how they’re dragging this man, it’s such a lack of respect, no honor, integrity and also lack of respect for a person’s humanity.
“Those who don’t respect humanity claim to be human. We have witnessed blind, senseless actions. This is how the planet ends? Is this how we go out?”
Ms. Black, the mother of two grown daughters, said she had wondered if Mr. Chauvin—who was charged with second degree unintentional felony murder, second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder—would get off.
“There’s a hopelessness on all sides in the midst of racialism and political radicalization. We see a dehumanization of people who don’t have money are brown-skinned or darker. This not recognizing that person’s humanity, signals the end of humanity,” she said.
Ms. Walker, a longtime grassroots organizer and community activist, knows better than most, the pain felt by the parents and families of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and the thousands of others killed by law enforcement in this country. In 2006, a Dekalb County, Ga., police officer shot and killed her 24-year-old brother Ab-Raheem Muhammad. She said even now, she doesn’t know why her brother was shot; the details of her brother’s killing remain unclear. But, she said, the end result was an unnamed female officer shot her brother in the face, killing him in a vacant apartment.
“I’m going to an event on Saturday for a guy who died in the back of a police car. I’ve seen this a million-and-a-half times,” said Ms. Walker, who just announced that she’s running for the Rockdale County Commission two seat. “I’m kinda numb to it. That’s my coping mechanism. Or I’d be in the street protesting. Protesting is 100 percent absolutely necessary but you need someone to do things independently.”
Ms. Walker, a United States Virgin Islands native, recalls making a trip to pick up the police report.
“The day after my brother died, I went to the station with a friend to get a police report. It didn’t happen,” she said. “They wouldn’t release my brother’s body. I asked them to tell us what happened and got no response.”
An officer, Lt. John Germano, told her to come back another day, Ms. Walker said.
“The first time I saw him he was extremely rude. My co-worker spoke to him and they got into a screaming match,” she said. “I came back with my mother; they took us into the interrogation room and I asked for a report. He said not to worry about that, ‘just bury your brother.’ I told him he was an asshole and said I’m leaving. I got up, he got up so forcefully that his chair hit the wall.”
“He whispered in my ear, ‘I told you not to bring your ass back here’ and said he’s arresting me. My mom was crying and I was pissed off and crying, worrying about if I would be late to arrive at the funeral home. It was terrible.”
Ms. Walker, who said she was engaged to a police officer at the time, was taken to another room and handcuffed. She said she heard Lt. Germano’s colleagues outside the door telling him he was wrong.
She doesn’t remember how long she was held at the station, but an officer eventually came, fingerprinted her, and took her ID.
“I told him this was not going to be the last time he’d see me,” she said.
Before her brother’s burial, Ms. Walker said, she got the opportunity to dress her brother because her father and other brother hadn’t arrived.
“But my father got arrested in Georgia for a 15-year-old traffic ticket. I had to drive an hour away to pick him up,” she said soberly. “I felt like a complete target was on our backs.”
Ms. Walker said she began investigating and with the help and guidance of a reporter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and knowledge about the Open Records Law, she obtained the officers records and was able to ascertain that 11 other families were also killed by officers from the DeKalb County Police Department under dubious circumstances and they began to agitate for an investigation.
“I was at the police department almost every other day protesting. It went on for a year and a half after my brother died. I will tell you something: I stayed on their neck as long as I could,” she said. “I got death threats. They issued a warrant out for my arrest from when they held me … and I went straight to the media. This was the type of harassment I endured. I had New Black Panthers standing in front of my home and they escorted myself and my children to and from school. It was hard to not see it.”
Ms. Walker said members of the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panther Party, Revolution NOW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, churches and others disgusted with the behavior, tactics and treatment of officers from the DeKalb County Police Department came out.
“Everyone was there. They made signs, protested, lay in the middle of the street for months,” Ms. Walker recalled. “We argued 12 cases of police homicides in one police department but it was a total of 24 which we didn’t know.”
County officials convened a special grand jury to review the cases and the families were able to get one conviction.
“They always just believed the police but I got the media on my side. I didn’t have the resources to do research,” she said. “A reporter pulled stories, told me to contact funeral homes and I reached out to families. We all compared stories and realized it was a pattern. Everyone said the cops wouldn’t give them a police report. I won an award from AJC (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) for that. I was so angry and people in Georgia were so angry at me too. …”
She refused to buckle or bow to threats and intimidation from law enforcement, including Lt. Germano, who committed suicide in 2019.
“I made sure after I buried my brother to bring hundreds, thousands of people on those streets,” Ms. Walker said. “I got the media involved and the Medical Examiner’s office was terminated because they lied to families and were involved in all kinds of fraudulent activity. I made some nasty noise in Georgia. I’m very, very proud of what I did.”
“The work continues. There are different ways to do it but we have to have noisemakers.”
She castigated Mr. Chauvin for “his posture, position and arrogance.”
“He didn’t allow that man (George Floyd) to have his rights, but he invoked the Fifth (Amendment),” Ms. Walker said of Mr. Chauvin. He invoked the constitutional right against self-incrimination not to testify at his trial “I don’t know, in the bottom of my heart, that we’ll get real justice, but this case is different. A lot of people don’t want to look racist, look stupid.
This killer caused demonstrations, affected that community’s economy. There’s a wave of social justice reform and a lot of people are jumping on. District attorneys and judges are going into a major election cycle so a lot of decisions will be political decisions even though this case is no different from thousands of other cases.”
As America tries to come to terms with racial and social conflict rocking the country, those demanding substantive change in policing are clear about the lack of faith, trust or confidence they have in U.S. law enforcement as an institution. There are calls around the country to abolish, deconstruct and rebuild an entirely different policing structure.
Student Minister Demetric Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, told The Final Call that his initial reaction was anger as well as pain to see even in the midst of a pandemic the unjust killing of Blacks and Latinos continue.
“As a spiritual community, we have to look at some difficult truths as articulated by the Most Honorable Louis Farrakhan and Marcus Garvey who understood that as a people, we can never have a true expectation of justice,” said Min. Muhammad, a Memphis-based author and member of the NOI Research Group. “We don’t like having conversations around independence or self-sufficiency.”
Min. Muhammad said Blacks can learn from what he calls the immigrant model. Rarely, he said, do we ever hear of police officers committing these types of crimes against young Greek, Jewish or Asian children.
“We have continued to follow the path of integration from a people who are evil, have no desire to be around us or to share anything. We need to pool our resources, carve out land or go abroad,” he said.
“The pain in the breasts of so many mothers and brothers is roiling. And what happened in South Carolina is a sign of things to come because we can’t take it anymore.”
Min. Muhammad was referring to an incident in Columbia, S.C., where a White non-commissioned Army officer accosted and pushed around a young Black man who was walking in a neighborhood. When the video went viral, hundreds of Black people went to the subdivision to protest the military man’s unnecessary and aggressive behavior.
Ms. Pruitt, a mother, a retired captain in the Montgomery County, Md., police department, social advocate, and commentator, is tired.
In almost three decades in law enforcement, Ms. Pruitt said she has fought to change the way that police deal with Black people.
“This has been exhausting, so exhausting,” Ms. Pruitt said with a sigh. “This trial’s effect will be long-lived because first we have the Black community and their allies who will be looking to see if justice is going to be served. After so long, it’s not just George Floyd, it’s about all the other Black men and women who have been killed in the custody of, at the hands of, at the knees of the police, so people are watching.”
Ms. Pruitt, founder of the Black Police Experience, was also the first Black woman captain in the history of the Montgomery County Police Department. She believes the Chauvin trial will likely push police reform forward a little.
What Blacks and the public have gotten is “a tutorial on use of force training, policy that maybe our community has not thought about in depth,” she said.
She also said any reform that’s implemented needs consistency across the board not just in small localities or cities.
“There needs to be national reform, and it has to be done at the state and local levels,” said Ms. Pruitt. She is also a board member and a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform.
When asked if she thinks the political will exists at the federal, state or local level for the reform necessary to transform American law enforcement, she said: “I think that everyone had good intentions when we first started this whole police reform conversation. There are people who are like ‘let’s just abolish policing all together, we don’t need these police forces and if we do, we can start from the ground up.’
“I don’t know what the answer is, but I can tell you what I do know is that we ain’t moving fast enough, that the public’s gonna have to drive the politicians who drive the police leadership who drive accountability. Right now, we don’t need all this policy. We’ve got all we need. What we need is accountability. What we need is some courage. And leaders who will tell you, ‘you were wrong’ and fire you for egregious behavior.”
Ms. Pruitt said police unions stand in the way of reform. Someone needs to take on the power of the unions, and Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights which shield cops from being held accountable and responsible for their actions, she said.
“We can stop saying we don’t see it. The question becomes who’s going to be courageous enough in police leadership and politics to do something about it?”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was updated April 22, 2021 at 10 a.m. CDT.)