The guilty verdict of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd marks a reckoning for Shari Clarke.
Clarke, Eastern Washington University’s vice president for diversity and senior diversity officer, said a similar reckoning occurred with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A young girl at the time, Clarke couldn’t comprehend what happened or the nightly news reports that followed. She only knew she was afraid, she said.
“This time, it’s a different feel. I think it’s different because we all witnessed it and there’s so much more media that made everything so available for us,” Clarke said. “And then when you add up Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, we just keep adding them up, and it’s just piled on one senseless murder after another.
“I think that’s another reason why this particular verdict felt so, so right and the start of something to heal us,” she added, “because there’s just been so much hurt, so much pain and so much tragedy for so long.”
A jury found Chauvin guilty Tuesday of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He is facing at least 12 ½ years in prison.
Curtis Hampton, co-chair for Smart Justice Spokane and a member of Spokane Community Against Racism, grew up under Jim Crow law in South Carolina. Hampton and his wife followed the Chauvin trial daily.
Tuesday, they stood to hear the verdict.
“We held hands. She shed a tear. I tried to hide mine. Goosebumps,” Hampton said. “And then when it happened, I thought, ‘Is this real? Did I hear that correctly?’ You feel disbelief that it went the way it should’ve gone. And you wonder, am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up and this isn’t real?”
Hampton has been braced for the worst, he said, though he couldn’t allow himself to think about how he’d respond if Chauvin was acquitted.
He pointed to the fatal shooting of an elderly woman by a Spokane County Detention Services officer in December. The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office determined the shooting was justified, as the woman was wielding a knife.
He said Tuesday felt “monumental,” on par with Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first Black president.
“Today was a victory, because this battle was won today, but the war against the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community will be there when we open our eyes tomorrow,” Hampton said. “Today, we celebrate, but we still gotta wake up to those same systems tomorrow.”
Murder convictions rare for police
The murder conviction is an anomaly not only because of Chauvin’s status as a police officer, but also the speed with which it was prosecuted during a pandemic.
A 2019 study from the Police Integrity Research Group, an organization tracking cases of reported crime committed by law enforcement at Bowling Green State University, found that four U.S. law enforcement officers had been convicted of murder since 2005. That’s out of 104 arrests on homicide charges tied to an “on-duty shooting,” according to the report.
Chauvin did not use his firearm in the murder of George Floyd. The research group notes that its findings may not be exhaustive, because they are limited to news accounts and court filings. No federal agency tracks statistics on crimes committed by law enforcement officers, but the Washington state Legislature this year passed a bill requested by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson establishing a use-of-deadly-force database collecting details of such incidents.
Most of those law enforcement officers arrested on charges of homicide are found guilty of lesser crimes, including manslaughter, official misconduct and deprivation of civil rights, according to the 2019 report. That last charge was the one a jury convicted Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson of in the 2006 death of Otto Zehm. Thompson received a sentence of a little more than four years in federal prison for his conviction.
Chauvin’s potential prison sentence would match closely the average of the sentences received by the four officers convicted of murder in the Bowling Green study. Prosecutors have indicated they’ll seek a longer sentence due to several aggravating factors, including that Floyd was handcuffed at the time he was killed and that the murder was committed in view of children.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said Tuesday he expected sentencing to take place in eight weeks. That would mean Chauvin, who was taken into custody after the verdict was read, would learn his fate the third week of June, just a little more than a year after Floyd was murdered outside a Minneapolis convenience store.
While the length of trials varies based on many factors, Chauvin’s prosecution took place at a time when many states opted to shutter their courtrooms for most hearings due to the coronavirus pandemic. Time magazine recently reported on backlogs of criminal filings in the thousands for many states, and in its argument against retroactively applying the striking down of Washington’s law on criminal drug possession, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office noted “enormous pandemic-related delays already facing courts.”
Thompson’s sentencing occurred six years and eight months after Zehm was killed.
Unlike in many trials of police officers, fellow officers testified against Chauvin – something that gave longtime police accountability activist Anwar Peace hope.
“I thought that was one of the awe-inspiring things I’ve seen in my 21 years as an activist, is those officers testifying. It’s what has to happen,” Peace said. “It hasn’t worked from the outside, trying to change, and so seeing these officers testify, it’s starting to look like the inside is trying to change.”
‘It’s only a beginning’
The exact historical significance of Tuesday’s verdict will not be determined until Chauvin’s sentencing, said Kiantha Duncan, president of the Spokane NAACP.
Even still, Duncan said she hopes the verdict sends a message to police officers – specifically “the bad ones in the bunch,” she qualified – that they will be held accountable.
“I think this is traumatic for even officers, police officers who are on the right or the wrong side of policing,” she said. “This has been a lot, so I want people to just breathe and really know that we are, as a nation – I think this is a sign that we are moving in a different direction.”
The Black community has an old saying: “Justice or just us,” otherwise the idea that justice “just doesn’t happen for us,” EWU’s Clarke said.
“When we think about the African American community, there’s been 410 years of traumatic history. Everything from enslavement to Jim Crow to the continuous marching for fairness, to assassinations,” she said. “Today, it felt like there was just a measure of justice, and I know that it will be the start of many conversations to come, but I think it’s an important first step.”
Robin Kelley, Gonzaga University’s chief diversity officer, said Tuesday’s verdict brings hope that justice “will not be denied” in future cases involving police shootings of unarmed people of color.
“There are two different systems of justice: (One) for white individuals and there’s another justice system for people of color,” Kelley said. “This verdict, even though it’s a lot more work to do and it’s only a beginning, it does provide some hope that change is possible and racial inequities can be alleviated, at least in the criminal justice system.”
Jada Richardson, a 17-year-old Black activist who rose as a community leader during Black Lives Matter protests last summer, said she is finally mourning.
“The Black community is getting ready to experience delayed grief,” Richardson said. “Because last year at this time, we didn’t get a chance to process in the community what had just happened. Instead, we saw Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor die. This is going to happen tomorrow in another city with another officer and another Black life.”
She couldn’t bear to watch the details unfold in the trial, but committed to watch the verdict reading live, and being nauseated through the half-hour wait. She said she imagines how her elders feel, having witnessed murders of many more Black people in their lifetimes.
Tuesday, she said she felt an enormous responsibility to her ancestors and her future descendants to right the same wrongs Black activists fought against as abolitionists and during the Civil Rights movement.
“You cannot reform a system that was built to incarcerate and re-enslave Black people,” Richardson said. “We have to restart and build something that works for everyone, and a guilty verdict does not take away from the fact that policing is not working.”
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