‘This is our Selma moment:’ Racial justice activists hope Derek Chauvin verdict spurs larger systemic change

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Derek Chauvin trial: Guilty verdict given in George Floyd’s death

It took less than a full day for the jury to reach a verdict for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.

USA TODAY

Around the country, as celebrations erupted Tuesday following Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd, those on the front lines of fighting for racial justice said the verdict represents a likely boon for the movement going forward, an impetus for systemic change on par with major events of the 1960s.

“This is our Selma moment,” said NAACP president Derrick Johnson, citing the event in which Alabama marchers headed to the state capitol in Montgomery were attacked by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas, an incident that ultimately sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Floyd’s death last year, along with the killing of Breonna Taylor, sparked a national reckoning on race that with Tuesday’s verdicts marked a moment of catharsis for a country wracked by division. A jury found Chauvin, 45, guilty of second-and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter,

The moment, Johnson said, has the potential to similarly galvanize support for the George Floyd Police Reform Act, a 2020 measure targeting police misconduct, excessive force and racial bias in policing.

“This should be a catalyst,” Johnson said. “It is an opportunity for Congress to do what’s necessary to make sure our communities can have trust in police agencies and feel safe.”

President Joe Biden himself said the decision could be “a moment of significant change” while calling for passage of the reform bill, and for some, the verdicts felt both empowering and vindicating — a reassurance that the activism they devoted themselves to had been worthwhile, even as they had had their occasional doubts.

Derek Chauvin trial: Across the US, cheers fill city streets after Derek Chauvin is convicted in the death of George Floyd

“Sometimes it felt like we were even smaller than a David facing Goliath,” said co-director Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “There were times when we’d demonstrate and there’d be, like, five of us, and we felt like it might be insurmountable. But what the last year has taught me that there are moments of awakening where the entire world wakes up.”

As she watched the verdict at home with her kids, Abdullah said her emotions took her by surprise: Not just relief and elation, but a sense of faith. in the people who she said had helped make it possible.

“It’s an affirmation of the work that’s been put in over the last year,” she said. “Since the moment George Floyd’s life was stolen, people have taken to the streets and issued demands, and what we have seen in this moment is that that bears fruit, that organizing works. We can not only reform but transform the system.”

As the news broke in New York City’s Union Square, co-founder Chivona Newsome of Black Lives Matter Greater New York had a similar reaction.

“It used to feel hopeless,” she said. “But the George Floyd movement solidified everything I believe: That the power truly belongs to the people. To every single activist, anyone who went to a rally or blacked out their social media: Know that you are powerful.”

Cries of “Guilty! Guilty!” swelled around her as she spoke.

“Today, a Black life truly mattered,” Newsome said. “It showed the police that they can’t go on killing, that they can no longer hide behind a badge.”

In Rhode Island, Ray Rickman watched from his couch and waited for that very long hour before the verdicts were read, frightened the jury would serve up a half-serving of justice and fail to convict Chauvin of the most serious charge of second-degree murder.

‘We are able to breathe again’:: George Floyd’s family relieved, thankful for guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin.

“And when the judge read it — guilty — I got tears in my eyes,” said Rickman, executive director of Stages of Freedom, an organization supporting Black youth through cultural activities in Providence, Rhode Island. “This is an individual going to jail, but the truth is that this is a blessing for the nation. We’ve seen this a hundred times – police don’t get indicted, much less go to trial.”

Rickman said the decision represents a small but consequential rupture in the proverbial Blue Line that cuts through a broken criminal justice system.

“I believe the American people have been educated that it’s not okay for cops to kill someone just because they feel like it,” Rickman said. “And that’s what George Floyd has done for us.”

Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, agreed.

“The real victory here is not the incarceration of Derek Chauvin,” Murch said. “Putting another person in a cage is not how we change the world. But stopping the killings of Black people with complete impunity, saying that Black lives matter — this sends that signal.”

For Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, whose 22-year-old nephew, Oscar Grant, was killed in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who said he mistook his gun for his Taser, the moment was in many ways a release.

“Oh man, I was full of emotions,” said Johnson, who helped found Love Not Blood Campaign, a police reform advocacy agency in Oakland, California, after Grant’s death. “I’m extremely glad that it came down the way it came down, and I’m hopeful that some changes are finally beginning to take place.”

Related: What are the odds Derek Chauvin is successful in appeal of guilty verdict in George Floyd murder?

A not-guilty verdict, he said, would have prolonged the continued implosion of a nation he sees divided among racial lines.

“There’s a lot of pain that Black people have been enduring for years without feeling that justice was done,” he said. “This allows people to take a breath and have some hope that maybe the tide is turning, that police officers who witness this will act in a more conscionable way. But we still have a way to go.”

‘We still have a lot of fighting to do’

So despite that major step, activists and leaders cautioned that the path toward racial justice remains long.

“This gives us some hope for the movement,” said Utah State Representative Sandra Hollins, a Democrat. “But we still have a lot of fighting to do. There’s still a number of people out there who are hashtags, who need justice.”

Hollins, Utah’s first Black female representative, had watched the verdict from her kitchen table with her husband and daughter, so overcome at the outcome that she teared up, her anxiety over the case relieved. In 2018, she sponsored a state bill in 2018 to remove references to slavery from the constitution, an effort that intensified as protests raged around the country last summer and passed overwhelmingly as a ballot measure in November.

The events of the past year, while difficult, she said, have filled her with hope as she’s seen youths embracing activism and political action. Tuesday’s verdict, she said, can only help the effort.

“Young people are contacting me, wanting to talk policy change,” Hollins said. “This movement has grown and turned into more than just a moment. We have seen people across all cultural and racial lines come together and say, ‘Enough. What has been happening can no longer happen.’”

Chattanooga activist Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a member and leader of the Movement for Black Lives, said that while she was glad the justice system had finally functioned as it was meant to, she nevertheless felt an overwhelming sense of grief.

“What justice should have looked like was George Floyd not being murdered in the first place,” she said. “It’s not just putting away one bad apple when we know the system is rotten to the core.”

That means much work still lies ahead, Henderson said.

“We have a racist and unjust system,” she added. “Police continue to harm our communities, using tear gas on peaceful protestors, and without systemic change, we’re bound to repeat the cycle again.”

That isn’t possible, she said, when “Congress is pushing 1990s band-aid solutions to 2020 problems. We have to divest from policing and invest in healthy, equitable communities.”

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Minneapolis reacts to Derek Chauvin being found guilty

Crowds outside of Hennepin Government Center react after Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd last May.

Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY

Rashad Robinson, president of New York racial justice organization Color of Change, said activists and leaders now need to hold accountable the corporations that in the fervor of last summer pledged to change how they operate and to make sure lawmakers go beyond speechmaking to passing meaningful legislation.

“The work ahead is about the structural changes necessary to deal with a racist and corrupt system of policing that had us all worried that what we saw with our own eyes would still not lead to accountability,” Robinson said.

Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he hopes the victory helps inspire Congress and state legislatures to move to enact uniform police training and procedures and to eliminate institutional racism.

“George Floyd’s screams were really screams for police reform, so I hope this sends a strong message that it’s time,” Garcia said. “Hopefully every police officer in America knows that you’re just one video away from ending up like this.”

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said racial justice proponents need to continue not only to recognize white supremacist elements of society, but to call them out.

“We have to work hard to dismantle that,” Yang said.  “And it’s important to name that in the struggle for racial justice. Sometimes we’re too fearful of using certain terms, and in this moment we have to be more bold.”

Murch, the Rutgers University professor, said that as someone born in the late 1960s at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, the verdict is important for her and her generation as one of very few civil rights victories that she’s experienced.  

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“Maybe the election of Barack Obama, though that’s complicated by his legacy,” she said. “But this is on that scale. It points toward the United States not being impervious to protest.”

And because nothing builds momentum like victories, she said, she hopes this is just the start.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, Chauvin is going to jail, everybody can go home now,’” she said. “This is going to empower people to fight for more structural change, stopping the mass criminalization of Black and brown men. It will inspire people to take on more intractable problems.”

That’s why, she said, she found herself so moved by the verdict and filled with pride for the country.

“It showed the power of organizing and mass mobilization,” Murch said. “Those 16 to 25 million people who went out into the streets, I firmly believe that’s why we have this verdict. The work done by prison abolitionists, by Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders, all these many organizations, this is what made those protests possible. That’s what made the change.”

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