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The Memo: Activists ask what's changed since George Floyd?

The Memo: Activists ask what's changed since George Floyd?
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The trial of the former police officer accused of murdering George Floyd is starting — and the moment is prompting questions about how much has changed since Floyd’s death in May 2020.

Derek Chauvin, who was then a Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on the neck of Floyd, 46, for around nine minutes, despite Floyd saying he could not breathe and despite warnings from onlookers. The shocking scene was captured on cellphone video.

Floyd was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His death sparked nationwide protests, including near the White House, as well as international outrage.

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Chauvin, fired from his job, now faces charges including second-degree murder. Jury selection in his trial was due to begin Monday but has been delayed until Tuesday or later amid questions over whether an additional charge of third-degree murder will be added.

The trial will be traumatic in itself, as the details of Floyd’s death are pored over again. Activists in the Black community are also mindful of a history that includes many acquittal verdicts in infamous cases where African Americans have been beaten or killed.

“I generally have zero expectations for any legal proceedings that happen, just because I haven’t seen nearly enough evidence of police accountability in this country,” said Johnetta Elzie, a prominent activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which aims to reduce police violence. “The expectation of justice is emotionally draining in a country that does not value Black life, period.”

The protests that followed the killing of Floyd were conspicuously multiracial — a far cry from the racially polarized reactions to some broadly comparable events in the past. There were signs in public polling of a new consensus building around the need to confront racism.

For example, in a CBS News poll conducted in late May and early June, 57 percent of adults said that police were more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than a white person. When the same question had been asked by the same pollsters six years previously, only 37 percent took that view.

Some longtime civil rights activists believe the reaction to Floyd's killing has created at least the potential for new progress to begin healing the nation’s deepest wound.

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“We have seen an outpouring that we have not seen in my lifetime — and I have been in this for decades — in terms of having people of all races and all over the world stand up,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill. 

But Sharpton also added that goodwill was not enough and that the need for change had to be reflected in legislation. Referring to the legislative victories of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he said: “If we don’t turn demonstration into legislation, we will not have been as productive as the generation before us.”

The House last week passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and “no knock” warrants at the federal level. Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville, Ky., police officers in a botched drug raid. The police in Taylor’s case had a no knock warrant for the address.

In the immediate aftermath of the Floyd killing, there were some signs of bipartisanship on racial issues. Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTop female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' Romney: Removing Cheney from House leadership will cost GOP election votes Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote MORE (R-Utah) marched in a demonstration over the killing. Former President George W. Bush released a lengthy statement in early June, referring to Floyd’s “brutal suffocation.” 

Bush added: “Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions.”

But there is far less sign of any across-the-aisles agreement now. The one House Republican who voted for the recent police reforms, Rep. Lance GoodenLance GoodenLoyalty trumps policy in Stefanik's rise, Cheney's fall GOP frustration with Liz Cheney 'at a boiling point' Blackburn introduces bill to require migrant DNA testing at border MORE (Texas), said he did so by mistake, having pressed the wrong button. The bill will only become law if it can attract the support of 10 GOP senators, as well as all Democrats in the upper chamber — and the prospects of that happening seem vanishingly small.

The proposal’s likely doom was celebrated by the conservative magazine National Review, which argued that it would “render our law enforcement less effective, our communities less safe, and our system less just.” The magazine’s editorial added: “It is headed for the dustbin in the Senate, and deservedly so.”

The diminished political will for action — at the local and state level, as well as in Washington — frustrates activists.

“We saw a lot of lip service from politicians who were running for office last year. I have seen a lot of walking back on promises made to communities,” said Elzie. “In some cases, elected officials are not responding at all.”

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and broadcaster based in Los Angeles, argued that there were reasons for both pessimism and optimism in the course of events since Floyd was killed.

“When you look around at policing in America, you still see, unfortunately, some police departments where there is no real, comprehensive crackdown on excessive force. We still see situations where young Blacks, Hispanics and others are victimized by police officers, oftentimes including the blatant use of physical force. George Floyd was not a magic wand that made bad policing go away,” Hutchinson said.

But Hutchinson added: “I think in general many police departments have got the message: ‘Look, we are being watched, scrutinized, we know millions of people have cellphones or cameras.’ That is a good thing. We have street accountability along with the beginnings of official accountability.” 

Whether Chauvin’s trial will demonstrate official accountability remains to be seen.

On Monday, George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin the trial would be traumatic.

“You have seen the video, my brother was tortured to death while [Chauvin] had a smirk on his face. 

"And if you can't get justice in America for that, what can you get justice for?” he asked.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.