The relief felt by many after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder trial of George Floyd speaks to how rarely Black people experience justice and accountability in the U.S., one expert says.
That expert and others say that’s why meaningful reforms are needed — not just for policing, but also in how survivors of Black homicide and police brutality are cared for moving forward.
Tanya L. Sharpe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the founder and director of the Centre for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims, says her “shock” upon hearing the guilty verdict spoke to how much she and others were anticipating a different result.
“The crowds (outside the courthouse) were ready to protest because this is the norm, that when Black people are murdered — in particular as a result of police brutality — that police officers aren’t convicted,” said Sharpe, who is Black and a U.S. citizen.
“In order for us to simply survive the trauma and the atrocity that we are chronically exposed to as Black people, it’s almost a numbing sort of way in which we have to move throughout the world.”
The American Civil Liberties Union noted after Tuesday’s verdict was delivered that it was the first time in Minnesota state history that “a white police officer has been held accountable for killing a Black man.”
The guilty verdict came after the jury deliberated for about 10 hours over two days before finding that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and that his actions were not that of a reasonable officer.
The former officer was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and faces up to 40 years in prison.
Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the trial, said sentencing will take place in eight weeks.
Sharpe says that day will likely look very similar to Tuesday, with the possibility that Chauvin could see a lighter sentence than what prosecutors and the public are seeking.
There’s also the possibility that an appeal — which Chauvin’s lawyers have hinted at, citing media coverage and public comments from U.S. lawmakers — could even overturn the result, though legal experts have said that’s unlikely.
“There’s a slight breath that can be taken, but an understanding that we still have miles and miles to go,” Sharpe said.
“Let’s not forget that just last week, simply blocks away, Daunte Wright was murdered,” she added, referring to the 20-year-old Black motorist who was fatally shot by a white police officer who allegedly mistook her firearm for a Taser.
Garth Davies, a criminology expert and associate professor at Simon Fraser University, says Cahill is unlikely to go easy on Chauvin when he hands down his sentence.
“I don’t think the judge is going to disappoint in this case,” he said.
“If the judge wanted to be lenient, this isn’t the case to do that. The statement would be incredibly loud if he went the other way on this. There is too much evidence here to not go for the maximum, or close to the maximum.”
Beyond steps like Congress passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and enacting local and state police reforms, Sharpe says more conversations need to be had about how to root out systemic racism from the American justice system.
She also says victim services need to be improved for people like George Floyd’s family and even those who weren’t directly impacted by his death or others.
“We are a global community of survivors because we are all privy to watching the murder of George Floyd,” she said.
“(But) this reality of racism and white supremacy actually impacts us all. And when we look at it through that lens of how it’s traumatizing us all, how it’s impacting us all economically, politically, socially, then I think we can begin to galvanize our social capital to create systemic change.”
Davies says that change may come slower than needed, yet he was struck by how Minneapolis’ police chief and other officers took the stand for the prosecution, which is rare in a police-involved murder case.
“Usually the police circle the wagons,” he said. “So I think police around the country are maybe looking at that and maybe the wall is starting to crumble a little bit — the idea that officers need to hold each other accountable.”
Following the verdict, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris said it was just the beginning of what they hoped was substantive action on police reform and tackling systemic racism.
“This can be a moment of significant change,” Biden said.
Despite the long path forward, Sharpe says she is still allowing herself to feel hopeful for the future, including Chauvin’s sentencing and the upcoming trials in August for the other three officers involved in Floyd’s death.
“The society at large is beginning to — and it’s so unfortunate that it had to come to this — but beginning to see our humanity,” she said.