George Floyd and an American uprising: What this means for racial justice — and what still needs to be done

Oliver Wiseman
·6-min read

My daddy is going to change the world.” The words of George Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter Gianna were on Joe Biden’s mind when he called the Floyd family on Tuesday afternoon. “He’s going to start to change it now,” the President told them.

Moments earlier Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half fatal minutes last year, had been found guilty on all counts. The US justice system had confirmed what the millions who watched the horrifying mobile-phone footage of Floyd’s death felt they already knew: that Chauvin was a murderer.

From the streets of Minneapolis to Black Lives Matter Plaza, a stone’s throw from the White House here in Washington, there were tears and sighs of relief, rather than the violent disorder that has followed high-profile police acquittals in the past and that many feared might follow a less damning verdict in this case.

In a narrow sense, the cries of “Justice for George Floyd” that rang out in cities across America last year got an emphatic answer in the Minneapolis court room. But as Chauvin was led away in handcuffs, wider questions remain unresolved. One stands out: what will be done to stop similar tragedies from happening again?

Floyd’s death sparked a conversation about race that has touched almost every aspect of American life, but it is the central injustice of the disproportionate police killings of black Americans that is back in the spotlight after Chauvin’s conviction. The trial has coincided with a series of fatal police shootings, only underscoring the issue’s immediacy. Last week, just miles from the court, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot by an officer who, according to police, mistook her gun for a Taser.

Then, last night, protesters took to the streets of Columbus, Ohio, to demonstrate against the police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old who was killed by a white police officer after she charged at two people with a knife.

“True justice,” said former President Barack Obama in a statement after the Chauvin verdict, “requires that we come to terms with the fact that black Americans are treated differently, every day. It requires us to recognise that millions of our friends, family and fellow citizens live in fear that their next encounter with law enforcement could be their last”.

In a televised address that evening, Biden promised “real change and reform” and urged Congress to enact “legislation to tackle systemic misconduct in police departments, to restore trust between law enforcement and the people that they are entrusted to serve and protect”.

On Capitol Hill, members of both parties heeded that call. Karen Bass, a Democratic Congresswoman and part of the team trying to negotiate a police reform compromise, said she hoped that the decision “might serve as a catalyst” to deliver legislation. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate and his party’s lead negotiator on the issue, is hopeful that a compromise can be reached, telling reporters that they were “making progress”.

George Floyd’s daughter, GiannaAP
George Floyd’s daughter, GiannaAP

Privately, however, aides wonder whether the fact that Chauvin was found guilty on all counts has drained some of the urgency from the push for new laws.

At the height of last year’s protests, Washington failed to deliver any police reform legislation even though both parties introduced bills. Democrats dismissed the Republican proposal, devised by Scott, as toothless. Republicans objected to the inclusion of an end to qualified immunity — a rule that protects police and other government employees from civil liability for some violations of citizens’ constitutional rights — in the Democratic counterproposal.

As is the norm in this divided town, any prospect of compromise faded quickly. Theodore R Johnson, a fellow at the non-partisan Brennan Centre for Justice, says that the parties’ failure to meet in the middle on police reform last year is “a harbinger of what the next few years will look like whenever police reform is brought up nationally”.

Democrats passed a fresh bill, named the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, last month in the House of Representatives, where they only require a simple majority. But it needs the support of at least 10 Republican Senators if it is to meet the upper chamber’s filibuster-proof threshold of 60 and become law.

Joe Biden has promised ‘real change and reform’AP
Joe Biden has promised ‘real change and reform’AP

If passed, it would mean sweeping reforms to policing: the law would ramp up the use of body cameras, ban chokeholds and other controversial police techniques at a federal level and discourage them at a state and local level, halt no-knock raids in drug cases, create a national police misconduct registry and limit the amount of military-grade equipment used by law enforcement. The biggest sticking point remains qualified immunity, which sunk the chances of compromise last year.

“I think the nation has changed since George Floyd’s killing,” says Johnson. “There may be a cultural shift, there may be a societal shift. But do I think Congress will pass any kind of legislation to standardise police practices or mandate body cameras? I don’t.” Local leaders have been less impotent than their national counterparts. New York City has cut $350 million from its police budget and reallocated that money to education, mental-health, and homeless services, for example. Such moves, and radical calls to “defund the police”, are — unsurprisingly — a lot more controversial. Last year, Minneapolis city councillors announced a plan to “end policing as we know it” but soon faced a backlash.

Do I think Congress will pass any kind of legislation to standardise police practices or mandate body cameras? I don’t

Theodore R Johnson

Complicating the picture further are large spikes in violent crime in US cities. The murder rates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles jumped by 40 per cent, 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively last year. These rises are a lethal reminder of the competing priorities at stake when it comes to policing.

Theodore R Johnson says he and his black friends and family felt relief on hearing the news of Chauvin’s conviction. And while this was a step in the right direction when it comes to racial justice, that relief was a sign of how much still needs to be done.

“The expectation of injustice and then relief at justice is the sign of a broken system and a society that does not have faith in its ability to hold police officers accountable.”

Crowds celebrate Chauvin’s convictionGetty Images
Crowds celebrate Chauvin’s convictionGetty Images

After the trial, the Floyd family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, described the Chauvin conviction as “a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement and sends a clear message we hope is heard clearly in every city and every state”.

The question is, are Washington’s lawmakers listening? If they are, then bipartisan action on the delicate and difficult issues of race and policing might just be possible.

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