A pleasant surprise and relief. Fears that the guilty verdict is the exception and not the rule. Certainty that the only path to criminal justice reform is consistent pressure on elected officials.
Those were just some of the reactions to Tuesday’s guilty verdicts in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd last summer, killing him and sparking protests around the globe.
After three weeks of testimony but just 10 hours of deliberation, a jury Tuesday afternoon found Chauvin guilty on both counts of second-degree unintentional murder and guilty of third-degree murder. Chauvin, who will be sentenced in eight weeks, could spend as many as 40 years in prison on a single second-degree murder charge alone.
On May 25, police were called to a convenience store where Floyd, 46, had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. As onlookers begged Chauvin to take his knee off Floyd’s neck and Floyd called out for his mother, Chauvin continued to lean on Floyd’s body for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, suffocating the life out of him. His death, which was captured on cell phone video, galvanized protests against police brutality around the world and impassioned Black mothers against police brutality.
The first Memphis protest came two days after Floyd’s murder, with a small, silent protest organized by educators, but it grew contentious after two white men, identified as members of a Facebook group called Confederate 901, taunted demonstrators.
Protests continued in the following days, growing in size and intensity each night. During a Sunday night protest downtown, demonstrators split into two groups, with some heading to the Interstate 40 bridge. Perhaps fearing that again demonstrators would block the bridge, as they did in 2016 following other incidents of white officers killing Black men, Memphis police and Shelby County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear shut down the bridge.
Law enforcement unleashed tear gas against demonstrators, and after confronting some on Beale Street, arrested about 150 people. After five days of protests, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland declared a city emergency because of “civil disturbances and violent protests” and announced a city-wide curfew.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism talked to several Memphis activists and organizers about the verdict and also collected public statements made by elected officials.
Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who participated in demonstrations last summer in response to Floyd’s killing: “While I am anti-mass incarceration, clearly Chauvin was not … And he is now entering the prison that he helped build.
“George Floyd — like (Memphis man killed by U.S. Marshals in 2019) Brandon Webber, like (Memphis teen killed by city police in 2015) Darrius Stewart, like (New York man killed by police in 2014) Eric Garner — deserved his day in court, if he had committed a crime. Derek Chauvin got a (trial) that these people did not get.
“I am relieved that we don’t have to add another painful moment right now … but we have so much further to go. … Nothing has changed with policing. It’s good that there is a guilty (verdict), but that doesn’t mean police are going to stop profiling Black people.”
The City of Memphis’ reform initiative “‘Reimagine Policing’ is nothing more than a buzz phrase to not engage in the depths of the reform that are necessary. … The community needs to keep the pressure on the city and on the county and make the demands that we need reform.”
Rev. Earle J. Fisher, pastor, organizer and activist who has been critical of the Memphis Police Department director search: “This (verdict) is the exception, not the rule. … This (shows) how much further we have to go in order for there to be even a semblance of justice for Black people.
“I can’t compartmentalize this trial and separate it from the broader system of inequities. We know how often these verdicts go against Black families. … Darrius Stewart was killed and the officer was never indicted, let alone received a trial. … This is evidence of a horrific problem, rather than evidence of a holistic solution.
“We’ve gotta face these voter suppression bills, these (proposed police) residency requirement rollbacks. … I can’t just run a victory lap. … I don’t want to live in a world where this kind of execution and murder (has) to be caught on tape for over 9 minutes for this to receive justice.
“The prosecutor in his closing arguments said that George Floyd didn’t die because he had a large heart (as Chauvin’s attorney argued), he said he died because that officer that killed him had a heart that wasn’t big enough. I’ve yet to be convinced that the collective heart of the country … (is) big enough to stop the plague of Black death that continues to persist.”
Rev. Stacy Spencer, president of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, which has pressed the city for criminal justice reform, and pastor of New Direction Christian Church, where an unarmed Stewart was killed by police after a traffic stop in 2015: “Because I’ve been living 52 years in America, yes, I was pleasantly surprised, because we have had disappointment after disappointment, people who have murdered and lynched with no repercussions.
“Today was a sigh of relief that justice has finally been served and hopefully it will be a ripple effect for criminal justice reform.
“I think it sends a message to all of the police departments that they will no longer be able to get away with murdering Black and brown people and I think it sends a message to the legislators and activists that we need to build on this.
“Even with our new police director, I pray she will also take note of what happened today… I’m hoping that she actually follows through on the recommendations (of the Reimagining Policing advisory committee).”
Darrius Stewart “is in my heart. … That still haunts me to this day. And that’s why I put a lot of my energy into criminal justice reform and into MICAH.”
Amber Hamilton of Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action, a coalition of more than 150 local nonprofits that last summer, following the police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sent an open letter to Strickland insisting on criminal justice reform:
“I think it’s fair to say that ‘guilty’ was the only option our system would allow, but it is a minor push towards justice. What we need is a police structure that would never allow this to happen. The real work is in having police who are highly vetted and trained, hold each other accountable to the highest standards, and whose leadership deconstructs all policies that stand in the way of protecting and serving all residents faithfully.
“I think it’s also a natural segue to our new police director, in that we still have questions about how she might identify and eliminate the Chauvins from her new police force.
“Lastly, I think that all of the same forces that drove people to protest across the world still exist and exist just as strongly as they did before this verdict was announced, so what are we willing to do as a community to prevent this from continuing to happen to Black people?”
Editor’s note: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland this week announced his pick for Memphis Police Department director – Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, the current police chief in Durham, North Carolina. The Memphis City Council has yet to confirm her appointment.
Mayor Jim Strickland, during Tuesday’s Memphis City Council meeting: “I do want to start off by noting that the murder of George Floyd has been very painful, not only in Minneapolis but for our country as a whole. We have felt that anguish here in Memphis too. And while I don’t think there will ever be true closure for Mr. Floyd’s family, I do pray that the trial and the jury verdict will bring some peace to his family and to our country.”
Editor’s note: Memphis organizers have roundly criticized Strickland for both failing to commit to substantive criminal justice reform and selecting a new Memphis police director with an opaque process that did not include community input.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, on Twitter: “Guilty on all 3.
“9 minutes. 29 seconds.
“The world watched as
#GeorgeFloyd lost his life. He should be alive today. And until we seriously address police brutality in this country, we will continue to see black and brown people lose their lives. If not now, than when.”
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, on Twitter: “Today’s Chauvin trial verdict provides some relief in a period of great challenge. Although we may never get over the murder of George Floyd, captured on video, on May 25, I pray that today’s verdict brings some solace to his family.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.