The guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial triggered an outpouring of emotion and a sense of relief among Blacks and others who watched the trial play out over a three-week span.
The trial was just the latest in a disheartening series of police-involved killings of primarily unarmed Black Americans by White cops and the fear was this case, like the others, would end up with a murderer walking free and Blacks left angry, frustrated and disappointed again.
But a racial diverse jury found Mr. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis cop, guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The announcement April 20 sparked spontaneous celebrations on the streets of Minneapolis and elsewhere while eliciting emotions ranging from tears to relief to disbelief, from exhaustion to exhilaration and a mélange of related and conflicting emotions.
Ria Thompson-Washington, a prison abolitionist and voting rights and social justice activist, said given the sordid history of police brutality and murder of Black people, she wasn’t sure what to feel.
“Yesterday, there were a lot of people celebrating. My thought is when you think about all it took, finding a White officer guilty because other officers said he was a bad cop,” said Ms. Thompson-Washington, senior manager of Voting Rights & Democracy at the Center for Popular Democracy. “It was very surprising that White supremacy prevailed in a new way. They tricked us into feeling safe … and police continue to be violent as we know them to be.”
“I don’t know if I should feel happy. I don’t know what so-called justice looks like,” she said soberly. “And do I celeb someone going into a system that is more violent? A system struggling with Covid-19? What does jail punishment for someone imprisoned for murder look like? For me, it’s, ‘is this what justice looks like?’ In other cases, we always know what the outcome is but it doesn’t happen. This was trial by public pressure. It took that much pressure for this outcome.”
New York University law professor Melissa Murray also cautioned too much celebration around this particular verdict.
“I think it made very clear that the verdict … was a respite not a reprieve,” she said during a recent interview on MSNBC. “There are larger questions about policing, about the propriety of certain protocols and whether in fact, public safety is actually served by the kind of policing we currently have in the United States. And these are bigger questions that are not going to be resolved by any single piece of litigation in the courts but really, again, will be reformed at the policy level and the grassroots level.”
Ms. Thompson-Washington said she doesn’t know if the verdict “is something we’ll see in courts and trials across the country.”
A part of the skepticism and distrust Ms. Thompson-Washington and many like her feels is because of the state of siege most Blacks feel and experience.
Less than 30 minutes after the verdict in the Hennepin County Courthouse, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant four times in her chest killing her. She was involved in an altercation with women at the foster home where she lived. She reportedly called the police for help and the officer, seeing her holding a knife and threatening one of the women, shot her.
Meanwhile, the deadly epidemic of law enforcement killing Black people continues unabated. Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed by a 26-year police veteran during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb about 10 miles from where the Chauvin murder trial was taking place.
In the days since the conclusion of the trial, police officers have killed other Black Americans. In Knoxville, Tenn., a school resource officer shot and killed 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr., a student at Austin-East Magnet High School. The officer claims Anthony had a gun but no gun belonging to Anthony was found but the Knoxville district attorney has already announced that no charges will be filed against the officers.
And in Elizabeth City, N.C., residents in the city are up in arms and have taken to the streets over the killing of Andrew Brown, Jr., 42, by a sheriff’s deputy serving a search warrant. It is still unclear why the cop shot Mr. Brown.
Those who have been marching, advocating and pressing for police accountability and responsibility have been arguing that police departments must be reformed, defunded or the criminal justice system abolished and reimagined to ensure that Black people are safe. Until law enforcement and the courts stop criminalizing normal behavior, until they turn away from the anti-Black racism and the brutal and oppressive tactics used to suppress Black communities, the Chauvin verdict will be a hollow victory, they say.
Filmmaker Kevin Sampson, who said he purposely sequestered himself from exposure to the trial to protect his mental health and sanity, felt so much was presented during the trial that the outcome was a fait accompli.
“It was one of those things when the verdict came in. Of course I’m glad that Chauvin has to do time for what he did, but as a lot of people said, ‘this isn’t justice. It’s just holding one White police officer accountable,” said Mr. Sampson, founder and director of the D.C. Film Festival. “We all knew this was just wrong. Trayvon Martin for me was when I lost faith in America. I feel like that was my Emmett Till. As a father it’s tough. We can do everything that’s right. Make sure our hands are out of our pockets when we go into a store, dress well, be respectful but sometimes that’s not enough.”
Mr. Sampson and other interviewees said so much of the pain and abrasiveness of what Black people deal with around race, policing and other aspects of life leaves them exhausted.
“People are just tired. It’s enough is enough,” said Kelly Collins-Charles, a Florida-based attorney, consultant and expert in unconscious bias. “You’re so tired of talking about these things but you can’t stop, especially because they want you to stop agitating, stop demanding, stop pushing. What we need to be discussing is, clearly it’s not a training issue or we’d save everyone or kill everyone. That’s part of the frustration and exhaustion around this issue.”
“In the case of Ma’Kiah, they have us arguing over whether it’s justified. How can they always find a way to make White people live? They carry axes, guns, weapons, beat up police and they still live,” she added.
Ms. Collins-Charles said she’s been a criminal defense attorney for many years but didn’t hold out much hope of a conviction.
“The quick return gave me a little bit of hope. I couldn’t imagine he would be found not guilty. I thought though, it would be a hung jury or a lesser charge,” she said. “Once they said the jury came back, I was anxious. The cops broke the Blue Wall of Silence with 14 officers publicly condemning his actions.”
It is that act—Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and 13 other officers testifying against Mr. Chauvin—that marked a shift in the case and could have profound implications in future trials involving police killings of Black people, said retired Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper.
He said it’s very difficult to win a guilty verdict in a case like this and credited the prosecution which he said presented their case masterfully, making “as strong a case as I’ve seen in many years.”
Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who videotaped Mr. Floyd’s murder despite intimidation from some of the officers on the scene, and unprecedented nationwide protests exploded across this country after the May 25, 2020 daylight killing.
“It was a deliberate, cold-blooded murder that the entire country witnessed. Everyone saw the premeditated murder and saw the jury do its job,” said Chief Stamper, an author and frequent critic of police misconduct and corruption who spent 28 years as a police officer and six as chief. “I personally believe that we will see change. There will be signs of change but it won’t be enough change. I think a threshold was reached. I don’t want to minimize the courage of witnesses or expert witnesses but when you have the most senior guy, the lieutenant and the chief. That takes great courage and integrity.”
Chief Stamper said the case was too strong and caused the Blue Wall to come tumbling down, a sentiment shared by Stan Germán, executive director of the New York County Defender Services.
“So, I think I’ll take a step back and look at trial itself because I saw something I hadn’t seen in 30 years—the Blue Wall of Silence with the chief, the lead investigator and other officers coming into court to say this man murdered George Floyd. Usually the Blue Wall goes up.”
Mr. Germán recalled as a young attorney hearing that Amadou Diallo had been shot 41 times.
“It was a high-crime neighborhood, a Black guy reaching for his wallet,” he said. “I hope this is a beginning trend when they call out their own. The ‘few bad apples’ analogy is misguided. I heard someone say that if you have 1,000 good officers and two bad apples, if the 1,000 do nothing, you have 1,002 bad apples. I hope this goes beyond the video, that they act a certain way when the camera is not on.
“I don’t know if it will open the floodgates, but it should have happened a long time ago. This isn’t about justice, it’s about accountability. It’s what we do going forward.”
Mr. Germán said while he hates the term, “defund the police,” the goals and objectives are commendable, sensible and meaningful. In that vein, he said, one way forward is to reform emergency responses across the country.
“If someone is mentally ill, you don’t need a cop. When a cop shows up the anxiety level goes up. Wherever you are. We have to get the right people out to emergencies. We really have to rethink the emergency response system. Do we need police all the time? No.”