The trial and conviction of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd came with America at a crossroads, a moment of anguish, but also of possibility, which historians and activists compared to the Civil Rights era.
From policing and race relations to the criminal justice system, the three-week trial of Derek Chauvin became “a symbol and stand in for our emotions, our fears and our hopes surrounding this whole set of issues,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University.
The audience for the trial was hard to measure, but likely vast because of the many streaming services that carried it live.
Even the president was paying close attention. Joe Biden called Floyd’s family after Tuesday’s verdict, which he said could be a step “forward in the march toward justice in America.”
That the case was about more than one Black man’s death at the hands of a white police officer was underlined during the trial – just miles away another Black man was fatally shot by a white police officer who had pulled him over for a traffic violation.
The trial resonated all the more for many because Floyd’s death was captured in a painfully intimate video that showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes, with two other officers on his back.
Civil rights historian Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University, was beaten by baton-wielding police during 1960s civil rights protests.
Then as now, Carson said, periods of agitation and activity were marked by atrocities that moved the public: The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy murdered in Mississippi after a white woman lied about being insulted; kids firehosed while marching for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
Carson points to the video of Floyd’s killing – made by teen passerby Darnella Frazier with her cell phone, shared around the world via social media and shown repeatedly during the trial in which she testified – as being the chief reason his death and the trial of his killer drew such attention.
Floyd is seen in the video prone on the street, telling police he can’t breathe and crying out for his dead mother. Lawyers for Chauvin had argued he followed his police training.
Mary Moriarty was chief public defender in Hennepin County, where Floyd died, until last year. She said she had long tried to draw attention to episodes of police brutality reported to her office, often recorded by officers’ body-worn cameras.
Moriarty recalled the horror of seeing the video of Floyd.
“Poor George Floyd is begging for his life, and here you have a cop just nonchalantly killing him in broad daylight in front of bystanders who are begging him to stop, and he knows he’s being videoed, and he just continues to do it,” she said. “So I think this was the last straw here.”
Police departments in many American cities are engaged with community leaders on dozens of reform efforts brought forth since Floyd’s murder. Most of the reforms focus on banning controversial tactics – like choke holds – and making police who do wrong more accountable.
Still, the changes are mostly in the proposal stage and do not go nearly far enough for many activists.
Issues of racism and police brutality “didn’t just arise when George Floyd took his last breath,” said Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins who represents Minneapolis’s Ward 8, which includes the intersection where Floyd was killed.
But pandemic shutdowns, she said, allowed Americans to see problems in a more intimate way. With lives slowed down, people had time to view and reflect on the video of Floyd’s killing.
His death and the trial also came during a period of anxiety and vulnerability in America, with over half a million dead from the virus, and with economic instability and political divisions rattling the country.
YEARS OF UPHEAVAL
For Mark Bray, a human rights historian and author, the current era of social and political upheaval started years before the pandemic and Floyd’s death.
The most recent era of activism was awoken in 2011 during the month long occupation of the Wisconsin statehouse, when protesters opposed a proposed anti-union bill, Bray said.
It continued in the early Black Lives Matter protests following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and to repeated demonstrations that followed more police killings of African Americans.
“The template for radical resistance over the past decade is that something happens in one city – and then it spreads as others ask ‘what are we going to do in our city to show solidarity?'” Bray said.
But the protests over Floyd’s death stretched beyond people who might embrace the term radical; people who may not normally demonstrate turned out in massive protests around the world.
Such protests are what must be built upon to draw attention to the root causes of police violence and racism, said Patrick Ngwolo, a Houston criminal defense attorney and pastor who met Floyd over a decade ago.
He said guilty verdicts were essential – but also that the country has to confront the larger issues at play.
“What does it look like for us as a country to try to make this whole, to try to address the centuries of systemic racism that this country has gone through?” he said. “What does it look like for us to think about sitting down and coming up with constructive ways to unite these yet-to-be-United States of America?”