Fired Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of George Floyd. The jury reached its verdict on April 20, after deliberating about 10 hours over two days. The most serious charge carries up to 40 years in prison. As the nation watched the trial broadcast live on TV, the ongoing crisis in U.S. policing came into sharper focus after the recent police shooting deaths of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago.
Last year, the video of George Floyd’s death under the knee of officer Chauvin set off angry protests in Minneapolis, and months of demonstrations across the U.S. and world calling for an end to police violence.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, he assesses the conduct of the Chauvin murder trial and how the nation can take concrete steps toward reforming the ways in which police interact with residents they serve in communities of color.
YOHURU WILLIAMS: I think there are three takeaways from this trial that make it unique, one breaking of the blue wall of silence. And I think in this particular case to have Chief (Medaria) Arradondo, for example, testify on behalf of the prosecution to have this range of officers come on and talk about how what they saw was a deviation from training and fundamentally inhuman — what they saw on on behalf of their children — was significant. I think, secondly, what was important about this trial is that although it will pivot ultimately on the testimony of expert witnesses, this is the first time in a long time that police brutality and a sustained conversation and discourse around what constitutes brutality I think has been had at least since Rodney King in 1992. And again, that’s not to say that there haven’t been other cases, but this has brought that issue home in a way, I think because of the intimate nature of the violence that was visited on George Floyd’s body, that we haven’t had a long time.
Ordinarily, we’re talking about police who fire on individuals. So I think back to that rash of killings in New York, in the early 2000, you know, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and others, Abner Louima — those are shootings. So it doesn’t seem as personal. The nine and a half minutes that we watch Derek Chauvin place his knee on George Floyd’s neck and watch the other officers fail to render aid, I think was compelling in a way of forcing that conversation in a way that we haven’t had in this country in a long time. And I think third, something I wrote about in The Progressive a few days ago last Friday: this idea that there’s a hyperfocus on this being a moratorium on policing. But if you think about the witnesses who appeared, particularly in the first few days of the trial, this is really a moratorium on American poverty. It’s a moratorium on systemic racism and injustice.
It’s a moratorium if you think about the individuals who lined up on that sidewalk who were calling for Officer Chauvin and his colleagues to render aid to George Floyd. It’s symptomatic of how women and people of color in our society are still silenced and ignored. You know, it’s easy for us to kind of look at this and for people to say, you know, we need to deal with issues of policing. But the kind of base issues, foundational issues here, the police in communities of color and communities like 38th and Chicago, aren’t seen as peace officers, people were there to preserve and serve and protect. They’re seen as an occupying army. And that’s part of the problem.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Dr. Williams, I did want to ask you about how to effectively undertake reform of police departments. It’s a complicated issue. There’s a lot of discussion about retraining, de-escalation techniques, racial sensitivity training, community control of police departments, repealing the qualified immunity that police have around the country, defunding or redirecting funds from communities to different agencies to tackle some of the issues that police are forced to deal with and they’re ill equipped to effectively deal with. What are some of your thoughts about this?
YOHURU WILLIAMS: It’s not like people who are living in communities that are ravaged by poverty and crime — it’s not that they don’t want police. I mean, that was one of the things that happened here in the aftermath of the calls for “defund the police” where you had certain pockets in community who came out and said, “Now, now hold on a second here. There were real issues in our community that we would like to address. It’s not that we want no police, we just want good policing. We want the type of policing that suburban communities enjoy, where officers have a vested interest in those communities because they live in those communities. How do we then think about reimagining the safety net? Can we do something with our schools that have wraparound services? Can we reimagine the way that we create opportunities for leisure for young people? Can we deal with addressing the very real needs that people have with regard to food deserts and lack of adequate healthcare?
Some of the things that inspire some of the criminality that we see in some of the low-level stuff, the likes of which, again you’re talking about in the case of George Floyd, a forgery. And in the case of Daunte Wright, an outstanding warrant, but what precipitated the traffic stop or expired tags and then an air fresheners window, which was illegal. You have to question at that point, as Chief Arradondo said, with regards to the forgery charge, that that’s not something that officers typically would arrest someone for. But in communities of color, that’s the entree to the brutality that we witness that ends up creating moments like this, that you force us to think broader than just what are the police doing? It’s more a question of what’s fundamentally wrong with our society and culture that people would need to forge $20?
I think all those issues are intertwined in a way that are reminiscent of what the Rev. Dr. King talks about in his final book, “Where do we go from here, Chaos or Community” where he memorably asked the question, what good is it to have the right to eat in a restaurant if you can’t afford anything on the menu? Civil rights without economic justice are dead rights. And a conversation about policing without looking at issues of economic justice and how we address issues of poverty, systemic injustice, which sometimes fuel the low-level criminality that we’re talking about, that fuel the coping use of drugs, that we talk about. That has to be embodied in this conversation as well.