As the guilty verdict rang out three times through the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, the 11 month pursuit of justice for police brutality victim George Floyd reached a degree of closure. However, Black Lives Matter advocates urge the public to see the verdict as an elemental step towards true justice rather than a final one.
“How does this impact our criminal justice system? I often say, one brick at a time,” PCC Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Kari Bolen said.
Nearly a year after the world watched 46-year-old Floyd plead for his life on camera, a jury found former-Minneapolis PD officer Derek Chauvin guilty of causing his death.
Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes, stood trial for second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and was found guilty of all three charges on April 20.
Since Floyd’s death in May of 2020, which spurred months of protests nationwide, the conversation surrounding accountability within police departments has been ongoing. With Chauvin facing his consequences under the public’s watchful eye, some see the verdict as a monumental show of justice while others regard it as mere accountability—the bare minimum.
“I was happy that FINALLY someone was being held accountable for the death of one (of many) unarmed Black folks at the hands of law enforcement,” said Gena Lopez, program director of the Ujima program at PCC. “However, we (those of the African Diaspora) have had and continue to have a turbulent history in this country due to a racist judicial system, biased law enforcement policies and practices/procedures that expands and perpetuates white supremacy.”
Although the verdict was a win, Lopez was still saddened that there have been multiple cases of police violence against Black people and especially Black men and Black boys at the hands of the police. Many outside the Black community were still aggravated that, through the lens of the television camera, it appeared that Chauvin hadn’t come to terms with it.
“Watching the verdict, I was struck by Chauvin’s sheer bewilderment at being found guilty—an outcome that he had clearly never thought possible,” PCC English professor Juliet Myrtetus said. “That Chauvin never showed any remorse was a failure of his own humanity, but his bewilderment was the sign of a more momentous failure: his training and experience as a police officer had given him perfect confidence that, despite his obvious guilt, the system would protect him.”
Chauvin maintained an overall blank composure as judge Peter Cahill delivered the verdict, his eyes shifting nervously from side to side as he received his fate. He may face up to 10 years for manslaughter, up to 25 years for third-degree murder and up to 40 years for second-degree murder.
Minnesota guidelines would typically slim the sentence down to an average of 12 and a half years per murder charge and four years for manslaughter due to Chauvin’s pre-existing clean record, but state prosecutors pursued a tougher sentence. They cited five aggravating factors in their pursuit, four of which were deemed valid by Judge Cahill.
Bolen, who joined the PCC community just five months ago believes that this social unrest as well as the ongoing pandemic have likely taken a toll on the mental health of PCC students and staff, especially those of color. As Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on campus, Bolen plans to facilitate training among staff members to better equip them for supporting students in the face of these events.
“The need to help our community cope with national events through a trauma-informed lens is of the utmost priority as we begin to plan for reentry to campus,” Bolen said. “As such, we are working to create a Trauma-informed care workshop series for faculty and staff as they prepare to engage with students on a more frequent basis in the summer and fall months. It is our hope that understanding trauma and secondary trauma will give tools and practices to instructors and practitioners to be the best support vessel for students and one another.”
Just as Floyd’s death last year sparked initiatives within the movement nationwide, Bolen emphasized the verdict’s potential to serve as a catalyst for more change, calling the Black Lives Matter Movement at-large an “essential vehicle” in addressing the systemic racism faced by Black Americans.
“In the face of a devastating pandemic that disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities, protests after the police shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor upended American politics,” Bolen said. “It was at this time that you saw corporations and educational institutions embracing the Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media. You saw the NFL express its support for racial justice and NASCAR ban the Confederate flag. You even saw some cities, including Los Angeles reallocate funds intended for law enforcement to poor communities of color.”
Myrtetus and Lopez hope that the verdict will inspire a degree of change among police forces as well as within our justice system.
“Until there is real, meaningful reform of the justice/law enforcement machines, we have little to celebrate,” Lopez said. “Our people are still dying at the hands of police, our communities are still over-occupied with their law enforcement presence, there is still an over-representation of Black men in prison and justice is still only blind to the actions of those sworn to protect and serve.”
Since a pair of Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, the framework for using deadly force by police officers has been perceived by the mere threat of the officers life, but this court case may be a call to change that because officers have been accused of protecting their own in the court of public opinion.
“I hope that those who defended Chauvin were as shaken by the verdict as he was,” Myrtetus said. “I hope that more cops will now think twice before they escalate to violence. I hope that this guilty verdict will embolden prosecutors to pursue justice against dirty cops. It will still not be easy to get convictions, but the more injustices that are brought to the public’s attention, the clearer the need for change will be.”
Bolen highlights the importance of working towards change at the individual level, whether it be at home, in school or in the workplace, if we hope to improve the treatment of Black and Brown Americans on a systemic level.
“Our criminal justice system is meant to keep all communities safe and foster prevention and rehabilitation and ensure equal justice. But throughout history and far into our present, we are falling short of that mandate. So, we have to do our part in our own spheres of influence. In our communities, within our workplaces, and in our homes, we must educate one another as to the disparities that exist as a result of racism and systemic injustice and begin to name it when we see it.”
In a society where the elements of systemic racism have taken such deep roots, Bolen encourages people to evaluate their own implicit biases and consider that, intentionally or not, they may be part of the issue—while it may not be your fault, it remains your problem.
“Part of that naming begins with self-reflection, recognizing our own contribution to a system that perpetuates bias and discrimination for particular groups of individuals and then doing ‘the work’ to dismantle our internal bias and become ambassadors for greater equity. I believe it can be done.”
Bolden remains confident that the criminal justice system can achieve greater reform, but Lopez plans to reserve those convictions for the future.
“And until there is justice for other hurting families who have experienced similar situations and I am no longer afraid for my Black son to be anywhere near police officers, I will hold my ovations and brace myself for the next victims of violence against Black folks” Lopez said.
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