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With trial over, what next for racial justice?

There have been other moments of police violence against Black men captured on video over the past few years.

As part of a new moment in human history when nearly everyone is equipped with video-recording phones, witnesses – and sometimes even the mandated clip-on cameras of police officers themselves – have captured the violent deaths of men such as Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Rayshard Brooks.    

“Say their names” became a rallying cry, and such videos, especially, helped launch Black Lives Matter, organized and led by a younger generation of Black Americans, who demanded the nation address its history of racial injustice with mass protests not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Why We Wrote This

For much of the country, it has felt like racism itself was on trial in Minneapolis. What does the verdict say about where America goes from here?

The name George Floyd, however, resonated globally, and from the start there appeared to be something different about the impact of the 9 1/2 minutes of footage that captured his murder at the corner of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis.

“Just a human, just a man, lying on the pavement being pressed upon, desperately crying out,” said prosecution team member Steve Schleicher in his final arguments Monday. “A grown man, crying out for his mother. A human being.”

On Tuesday, a jury issued a verdict all too rare in American history, convicting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on all counts, including murder.

But as the Monitor reported Tuesday, despite the honking car horns and shouts of solidarity outside the Hennepin County Courthouse, the mood could not be considered happy.

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“The exhaustion is real, the constant emotional turmoil we experience is real,” says JaNaé Bates, communications director of Isaiah, a St. Paul-based network of faith organizations that promotes racial justice in Minnesota. “And the idea that the only off-ramp for that is a conviction – it’s incredibly frustrating, because we know the problems go far beyond one cop.”

A year ago the shocking footage of Mr. Floyd’s murder sent a jolt through white America. With millions at home and more attuned, his death sparked a number of unprecedented if modest initial responses. 

The controversies over athletes taking a knee began to wane, the NFL admitted it was wrong to oppose players like Colin Kaepernick, and athletes in leagues overseas began to say Mr. Floyd’s name and take a knee.  

Brands began to acknowledge and remove the racist stereotypes implicit in their packaging, more organizations began to remove memorials to Confederate leaders, and companies like Twitter and Square began to make Juneteenth a paid holiday. Merriam-Webster agreed to include a definition of systemic oppression in its entry on “racism,” and news organizations, including The Christian Science Monitor, began to capitalize Black – an acknowledgment of the sui generis experiences of Black Americans throughout the nation’s history.

Even President Donald Trump, who long emphasized law and order, responded by signing an executive order last June, calling for police departments to train officers on de-escalation techniques and use of force standards – which “will be as high and as strong as there is on earth,” the former president said.

Yet many Black Americans temper such glimmers of hope after Tuesday’s verdict with a more sober assessment, noting that centuries of systematic oppression will not just easily disappear. 

“We can’t reconcile the tension that exists between police and Black communities unless we speak truth about the extent of that violence – deadly violence directed at Black communities, and what that looks like in historical perspective,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, professor of history at Ohio State University. “This verdict defies history because historically, it’s rare that police get indicted and it’s even rarer that they get convicted.”

Law enforcement officers kill an average of 1,000 people a year. About 1% of those officers face charges afterward. Since 2005, just seven police officers have been convicted of murder, according to Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green University professor.

The massive protest movement and the shocking video indeed helped make a difference after Mr. Floyd’s murder, Professor Jeffries says. “But one of the things that was a big difference, and that we need to take away from this, is we saw what happens when prosecutors actually want to prosecute police.”

Maryland revokes police bill of rights

Police officers and prosecutors work closely together in the justice system – many have referred to it as an intimate fraternity between those within the constant stress of some of the most high-stakes jobs, and most prosecutors hesitate to aggressively go after their own, experts say. Police officers, too, are granted additional protections, like qualified immunity and other legal shields from prosecution. 

In 1974, Maryland was the first of some 20 states, including Minnesota, to enact a bill of rights for law enforcement officials, which added extra protections for police officers accused of misconduct, including limits on the length of time in which citizens could allege complaints, limits on the discipline handed down to officers who violate procedures, and a requirement that only other police officers could investigate those accused.

But this month Maryland became the first to repeal these special protections, its legislature overriding the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

It was indeed the murder of Mr. Floyd that propelled these changes, says Lawrence Grandpre, director of research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots organization in Baltimore. People went from “awareness to truly desiring or demanding some sort of change.” 

But the repeal “doesn’t fit the neat mythology of, we rose up, we protested, and now we have achieved victory,” Mr. Grandpre says. “What happened in Maryland is a decadelong organizing effort that’s culminated in meaningful, but not revolutionary progress.”

Lee-Ann Stevens, an educator in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, also expresses an ambivalent mixture of relief and hope, tempered with a certain amount of realism. 

“I cried. I cried. I felt like I’ve been holding my breath for almost a year,” Ms. Stevens says. “I cried from relief, recognizing this is a milestone, but it’s not the finish line, and there’s still so much more work to be done. But this is a great start to the work that needs to continue.”

When Mr. Chauvin’s trial began earlier this month, polls suggested that fewer white Americans, not more, expressed support for the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

About 43% of white respondents said they supported the movement last year after images of Mr. Floyd shocked the nation. But a year later, only 37% expressed support – the same number measured before Mr. Floyd died under Mr. Chauvin’s knee, the polling company Civiqs found.

More significantly, perhaps, white opposition to Black Lives Matter significantly increased over the same time, jumping from 35% last year to 49% at the start of Mr. Chauvin’s trial.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has the highest-rated show in cable news, suggested on Tuesday that Mr. Chauvin’s trial was hardly fair, and that the “unanimous and unequivocal verdict” was really a result of fear. 

“Everyone understood perfectly well the consequences of an acquittal in this case. After nearly a year of burning and looting … by BLM, that was never in doubt,” Mr. Carlson said during his broadcast Tuesday, in which he cut off an interview with a former sheriff’s deputy who said the verdict was just and characterized Mr. Chauvin’s actions as “savagery.”

But there have been signs of change in the concrete steps being taken by corporations, the media, and a number of state and local governments – like supporting reparations and reinvesting in community resources, many activists say.

“The practice of how law enforcement deals with folks of color, those are the things that are on trial more,” says Nathan Hampton, a principal in the Minneapolis public school system. “I think what happened with Mr. Floyd and his death kick-started a lot of changes, and I hope these changes continue to work and serve people in the community.”

In Houston’s Third Ward

The day after Mr. Chauvin’s conviction, in Mr. Floyd’s childhood neighborhood in Houston’s Third Ward, residents gather by the handful to pay their respects at a mural of Mr. Floyd painted on Scott Food Store’s back wall. A Black Lives Matter flag hangs to its left. Flowers adorn the cracked concrete underneath it. Old-school soul music plays from speakers across the street. 

Dennis Roundtree, senior pastor at Acts Tabernacle Holiness Temple, slowly walks up to the mural of Mr. Floyd’s face. He stares at the painting, as if to lock eyes. He and Mr. Floyd both went to nearby Yates High School. They didn’t know each other back then, but they grew up only a few classes apart. 

Dr. Roundtree thinks Mr. Floyd’s death didn’t just affect his community in the Third Ward. It changed the nation forever going forward. 

“I think George Floyd will go down in history like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and it goes on,” Dr. Roundtree says.

Shirley Gilliam, an educator at the Houston Independent School District, and Candra Handy, who also works at HISD, say it’s their first time seeing the memorial. With each step, they say they could feel their emotions rising up.

She thinks Mr. Chauvin’s conviction on all three counts signifies that their community’s pleas have been heard.  

“It has brought such awareness to Black life. When you take one of our own …” Ms. Gilliam pauses and collects herself. 

As an educator and mother, she understands the tragedy of Mr. Floyd’s death ripples beyond Mr. Floyd’s family and, ultimately, the nation’s collective grief. Ms. Gilliam says she can’t help but feel compassion for Mr. Chauvin’s family. “There are two families that have been destroyed by this – and over what? Over not being human? Over …” Her voice trails off again. 

Now, she thinks Mr. Chauvin’s conviction will cause officers to think twice and act with compassion for others in the future.

“Now, they’re going to care,” she says. “They’re going to care and they’re going to think about it.” 

“The whole country listening”

Other activists point to the need to continue the unprecedented momentum of the past year.

“We got the whole country listening to us right now,” says Brian Fullman, lead organizer of Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative, a coalition of beauticians, barbers, and faith leaders in Minnesota. “This isn’t the time to slow down our work. This is the time to expand.”  

“I have not organized my community around the Chauvin trial, but around systemic oppression and abuse and the culture of policing across the country,” Mr. Fullman says. “We know those things will continue, and so if you don’t line up and get involved, the protesting is for nothing. You have to get to the inside and have a plan.”

State Rep. John Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes part of St. Paul, echoed those sentiments, saying the verdict was an important step rather than a final destination in the march for racial equality.

“This is definitely a victory, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” says Mr. Thompson, who became involved in politics after a police officer fatally shot his friend Philando Castile in a St. Paul suburb five years ago. He, too, has introduced a bill that would end special protections for police officers charged with civil violations or violent crimes.

“This fight has been going on since before I was born, back to the days of Martin Luther King Jr., and before him,” Mr. Thompson says. “So as long as I got breath in my body, I’m going to fight.”

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Mark Sappenfield Editor

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