Advocates warn against complacency after Chauvin verdict
Lawmakers and advocates say that while the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was a historic milestone, it should not lead to complacency in the fight for racial justice.
Chauvin was the first white police officer in Minnesota to be convicted of murdering a Black person, but other shootings in the days surrounding Tuesday’s verdict underscored how the U.S. is still grappling with police brutality and racial injustice.
“While he was convicted of murder and held legally accountable … the same day, Ma’Khia Bryant, [a 16-year-old Black] teenager in Ohio, is killed by the police,” said Amaka Okechukwu, a sociology professor at George Mason University who specializes in race, ethnicity and social movement.
“I use that as just an illustration of the persistent and systemic nature of this violence. It is beyond individual officers. At this point, this is a systemic issue,” she added.
Body camera footage from the incident in Columbus shows Bryant had a knife and was moving toward another girl when an officer, identified as Nicholas Reardon, shot her four times.
About 10 days earlier, as the Chauvin trial was coming to a close, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., just outside the city where George Floyd was murdered.
To some, Chauvin’s conviction was seen as bringing closure to a new civil rights movement that was sparked last year by the police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
Some state leaders, however, cautioned against declaring victory.
“We have to not forget the past because of one instance of accountability,” said Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford (D), who is Black.
On Capitol Hill, Black lawmakers were quick to make the distinction between holding one officer accountable and delivering justice on a larger scale.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Friday that the “outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial doesn’t change things for us, because Black people are still being killed by police.”
“Our communities are still faced with the same traumas as before,” she said.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) called the verdict a “first step,” adding that she’s hopeful that it will act as a “catalyst” for the passing of reforms that have been proposed on Capitol Hill.
Those reforms, Democrats argue, can be achieved by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Introduced in June, the legislation would implement sweeping changes to federal policing standards: racial profiling at every level of law enforcement would be prohibited; chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants would be banned at the federal level; qualified immunity for officers would be overhauled; and a national police misconduct registry would be created.
The House passed the legislation last month, but progress on getting the bill passed in the Senate has been sluggish.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black Republican senator, introduced a police reform bill of his own after Floyd was killed. Neither proposal passed the Senate last year, and while Scott has signaled that he’s open to negotiating, the issue of qualified immunity has created an impasse in talks.
Qualified immunity shields state and local police from civil suits unless they violated a clearly established constitutional right.
At the Capitol on Thursday, Scott was spotted in discussion with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and the architect of the police reform bill, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who told reporters that their discussions were “continuing” but that Scott is steadfastly against eliminating qualified immunity.
Booker added that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had given him “wide latitude to do everything I can to get a bill done.”
President Biden has indicated he wants legislation passed.
“We have to listen. ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him,” Biden said Tuesday following the Chauvin verdict.
Separately, Biden has called for a $300 million increase of funding for community policing.
Proponents of police reform have pushed for an increase of resources and funding for social services such as mental health professionals and violence prevention in an effort to shift police away from being first responders to nonviolent crises.
“In a case where there’s not violence, we need to continue to find alternatives of mental health professionals and social work professionals, not the police as the first responder,” said Ronal Serpas, who served as police chief in both Nashville, Tenn., and New Orleans.
“By the time someone calls the government for help, we’re already late,” said Serpas, who’s now a criminology professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
But repairing the deep-seated pain and misgivings that the Black community has from encounters with law enforcement is a herculean task, one that Okechukwu is doubtful can be achieved.
“It is not Black people’s own imagination as to why they don’t trust the police,” Okechukwu said. “There’s evidence, decades and decades upon decades of actual experiences with the police that create that distrust.”
A Gallup poll in August revealed that wariness, with only 19 percent of Black respondents saying they had either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police.
“I just don’t think it’s possible at this point to rebuild trust. I think there are generations of violation, and I think because of that it is going to be pretty impossible,” Okechukwu said.