Now, millions of Americans wait to see whether a moment of rare hope will spur political leaders to deliver similar justice by reforming policing and eradicating systemic racism.
A jury of 12 Minnesotans did more than convict ex-policeman Chauvin Tuesday on all counts of murdering Floyd by squeezing the life out of him with a knee to the neck. In a profound moment of modern American history, they offered a measure of optimism that Americans of all races will one day be treated equally and that malign police officers can be held accountable to the laws they are meant to enforce.
The verdict will not bring Floyd back from an unnecessary death. Nor will it erase the millions of injustices faced by Black Americans not recorded on cellphone video, or the Black community’s dread during encounters with police. Proof of that came in police shootings and harassment of Black Americans as the trial went on, in situations that might not have ended so tragically for Whites.
But the moment when Chauvin was led to a jail cell, hands cuffed behind his back, triggered relief and, in places, disbelief. It validated a social and political movement, championed by celebrities and athletes, that spanned the globe after Floyd’s murder last May that sent citizens of all ethnicities into the streets during a pandemic to demand justice.
“This is monumental, this is historic. This is a pivotal moment in history,” Floyd’s brother Philonese told CNN’s Sara Sidner.
Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, poignantly noted that many Black men and women still live in fear every day. “So when I say today is a pivotal moment, it is chance for America to take a turn in the right direction,” he said.
All eyes turn to the Senate
“We can’t stop here,” President Joe Biden said at the White House, calling Tuesday’s verdict “a much too rare” step forward for Black men. Vice President Kamala Harris said: “We are all a part of George Floyd’s legacy and our job now is to honor it and to honor him.”
The method for making the most fundamental set of changes to policing in a generation, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is already sitting in the Senate. Democrats say it would end racial and religious profiling, ban chokeholds on suspects, eliminate no-knock warrants on drugs cases, make it easier to prosecute offending police officers and would overhaul police training to build trust with the communities in which officers serve. Yet its path is challenging given the opposition of many Republicans to the concept of Washington establishing federal standards for police.
It was noticeable that — amid a torrent of Democratic reaction to Chauvin’s conviction — there were few statements from Republicans, months after a general election in which former President Donald Trump sought to paint protests at Floyd’s death as symptomatic of left-wing anarchy. His extremism is in line with what ex-Republican President George W. Bush Tuesday branded “nativist” sentiment in the party. Many Republicans, who can stop the bill with filibuster blocking tactics, are more keen to claim all Democrats agree with their most radical members on calls to abolish the police.
As the jury wrapped up deliberations Tuesday, Republicans were fixated instead on a censure motion in the US House of Representatives accusing California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of inciting violence over the trial.
Even more moderate Republicans may take the position that the justice system worked in convicting Chauvin and that further changes may be unnecessary.
“I have trust in our justice system and the great institutions that have always formed the basis of our society, obviously pleased that the temperature will hopefully be brought down a bit,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of those moderate Republicans, told CNN.
Rep. Karen Bass, one of the authors of the bill named for Floyd, said the verdict gave her hope for the legislation as she continues informal talks with GOP colleagues about a potential compromise. But there is still a wide gulf between Democrats and Republicans on reforming qualified immunity, which protects officers in civil court. And there’s no guarantee yet that all Democrats in the 50-50 Senate are on board.
With his speech following the verdict at the White House alongside Harris, and in his telephone call promising action to Floyd’s family that was captured on camera, Biden appears fully committed on police reform. There had been some question previously over how much political capital a new President with a massive agenda and a historic kinship with the police would commit to passing legislation with an apparently unpromising path.
Perhaps in a nod to intense political pressure he faces, as a President who owes his victory in last year’s election in large part to Black voters, Biden said publicly Tuesday that he was praying for the right verdict, all while the sequestered jury was still deliberating. It’s possible nationwide reaction to Chauvin’s conviction builds both elevated expectations for the President and a wave of momentum that could change the political atmosphere, if handled skillfully.
The attitude of police unions, forces and individual officers will also be critical to hopes of civil rights activists for a change of culture. Prosecutors made clear in closing arguments in the Chauvin case that they were putting an individual officer, not all police, on trial. And the case was notable for the parade of fellow officers who lined up to testify against their former colleague and to repudiate his conduct.
“The main question is, will we let politics divide us?” asked Floyd family attorney L. Chris Stewart on Tuesday. “Because that is what happens. Republican or Democrat, you are going to stick to your sides. Unify … and get this bill passed and save people so you don’t have to board up your cities for situations like this.”
Hope that Floyd’s death can end a tragic sequence
Countless leaders and activists, along with the President of the United States, underscored the point Tuesday that one verdict cannot produce the sea change needed in American society to root out the brutality and prejudice faced daily by people of color in their dealings with police. Poignantly invoking their point, activists named some of the thousands of other lost young men and women — including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and Philando Castile.
The harsh reality that police killings have continued even after a year of public outrage has been underscored by the recent deaths of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, killed by an veteran officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, shot by a Chicago police officer responding to reports of gunfire after a chase down a darkened alley in March.
Leading figures from former President Barack Obama to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison emphasized that there is a long journey ahead that will hinge on the willingness of Americans to keep up the pressure as they seek an end to senseless deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Ellison, who headed up the team that prosecuted Chauvin, said he could not call the verdict justice, because that would imply “true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice,” he said.
“Now the cause of justice is in your hands — and when I say ‘your hands’ I mean the hands of the people of the United States,” Ellison said during a news conference.
BJ Wilder, a 39-year-old Minneapolis resident who listened to the verdict with other jubilant demonstrators in George Floyd Square, was one of many activists hopeful that Chauvin’s conviction would be a turning point that leads to an awakening in America and accountability for officer misconduct.
“This is something different. This is new,” Wilder told CNN’s Omar Jimenez moments after the verdict. “We’ve been here so many times before and honestly the first thing that I really thought about was the Rodney King situation,” he said, referring to the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers who had beaten King — an event that led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
“And I thought it could have been something similar to that, just because we all saw that too. And this feels like — just feels like we can breathe. This feels like something new. It’s hopefully a new day in America.”