Published April 22, 2021
Following Tuesday’s guilty verdict for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, UBNow sought faculty members’ thoughts on the trial and the continued push for racial and social justice in the United States.
We thank these scholars for their quick responses. Here are their thoughts:
Athena Mutua, professor of law and Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar
“The conviction of Derek Chauvin is edifying. A jury of his peers and a multitude of diverse protesters saw the arrogance, felt impunity and depraved indifference with which he needlessly murdered George Floyd. But while Chauvin, the individual, must be held accountable, the problem of police violence in the U.S. is deeper. It is historical, ongoing and systemic — authorized by the state, backed by law, institutionalized throughout our political economy, supported culturally and exercised primarily against people of color, the poor and the vulnerable.
“Police killings will not disappear with one or several convictions. Rather, change will come when: (1) we recognize that we do not need armed forces to regulate our traffic, monitor our schools and respond to mental health crises, among other issues; and (2) we begin to redefine what we need to be safe, invest in and create resilient communities, deal with oppression and treat each other with the dignity and compassion that we all deserve.”
Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs, and chief diversity officer, Graduate School of Education
“I think many individuals, especially Black people, are experiencing a variety of emotions today. For many, there is relief that officer Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd, but those feelings were immediately dampened by the almost simultaneous news of the police killing of a 16-year-old black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, in Columbus, Ohio.
“While Chauvin may have been convicted, the larger issues of systemic racism in the police force and the inequity of policing in this country have only begun to face real scrutiny and accountability. The levels of exhaustion, numbness, rage and a host of other emotions among people of color over these seemingly endless shootings and hate crimes are affecting the well-being and mental health of so many.”
Victoria Wolcott, professor of history
“The conviction of Derek Chauvin was a moment of justice, but it was a moment in a long history of white racial violence when justice has been rare. Like Emmett Till’s 1954 lynching, George Floyd’s death has inspired massive and sustained calls for societal change. Indeed, the video of Floyd’s murder has played a similar role as Till’s open casket, providing tangible proof of white supremacy’s consequences. And Chauvin’s conviction, in contrast to the acquittal of Till’s murderers, suggests progress of a kind. However, the news of teenager Ma’Khia Bryant’s death in Columbus, Ohio, at the hands of police moments before the verdict was read dampens any sense of relief. And in the end, no trial can bring George Floyd back to his family.”
Henry Louis Taylor, director, Center for Urban Studies
“The murder of George Floyd gave us a ‘smoking gun’ of explicit racism imbued with a callous brutality rarely seen publicly. The only possible defense Chauvin’s lawyer had was ‘don’t believe your eyes.’ With the entire world watching, people did believe their eyes. There was only one possible verdict — guilty on all charges.”
Perfect conditions existed for winning this case
“More than 28 million people participated in protests across the nation and globe. COVID-19 self-quarantine conjured millions more in discussions across the world, while the murder ignited a social change movement not seen since the 1960s. There was a progressive Black chief of police and Black attorney general. The trail was televised and even the right-wing Fox News refused to give Derek Chauvin support. Even as the city prepared for the worst, everyone knew the jury would not render a ‘not guilty.’ Not one jury member wanted to be on the wrong side of history.”
What does verdict mean?
“This victory reflected the people’s power. It was made possible by the millions who drew a line in the sand and said ‘enough.’ But history teaches us, the retrogressive forces in this country will resist. Even as they say, ‘justice was served, and this is the beginning of a new beginning,’ they will block efforts to defund the police and recreate policing as we know it. These same forces will fight reforms to improve the quality of neighborhood life among Blacks, Indigenous and people of color. They will work tirelessly to maintain the status quo. And the fightback will continue. The people will build on this ‘shining moment.’ The people will continue to the quest for that day when BIPOC will cry ‘free at last, free at last.’ This victory will cause them to keep the faith and raise the battle cry, ‘Remember George Floyd. Power to the People.’”
Guyora Binder, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Law; Hodgson Russ Faculty Scholar
“Often, after a high-profile jury verdict, journalists and members of the public want to know whether the result will be a legal precedent that changes the law. And almost always, the answer is ‘no,’ because juries are asked to decide questions of fact, not law. But this case is a rare exception. One of the important questions juries have to resolve in such cases is whether a police officer’s use of force was reasonably necessary, considered from the viewpoint of a reasonable officer. That is a value judgment, influenced by what jurors learn about police training and norms, but also influenced by societal expectations for police conduct. The evidence on this question before the jury is very well known to the public. Future juries everywhere will be familiar with that evidence and with the widespread public approval of the verdict. This case will change how juries evaluate police use of force, and how police are trained.”
Christopher Dennison, assistant professor of sociology
“This verdict (and the attention surrounding this case) speaks to the growing concern and awareness of issues of inequality in the criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to police officers’ use of force. It is hoped that the discussions sparked from this case and verdict will continue moving society closer to a fairer, transparent and equitable criminal justice system.”
Terri N. Watson, UB Center for Diversity Innovation Visiting Scholar; associate professor of leadership and human development, The City College of New York, CUNY
“Tuesday’s guilty verdict was NOT a ‘historic moment.’ Rather, it is indicative of just how imbalanced the scales of justice are for Black America. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was lynched. The world watched as Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. In a “Beloved Community” grounded in the five Cs (Care, Courage, Critical Reflection, Commitment, and Community), that would have never happened.
“Ironically, many people felt that because of the testimony of so many law enforcement agents on behalf of the prosecution, that Black America was finally on the receiving end of justice. However, 20 minutes before the guilty verdict was released, a 16-year-old Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, was executed by police officers in Columbus, Ohio. While the details of Bryant’s death are unclear at this time, what we know for sure is that she was a child and called for the police because she feared for her safety. Police officers are required to protect and serve — not murder and maim — Black men, women and children. If we, as a society, are sincere in our efforts to create a Beloved Community, we must embody the abovementioned five Cs and treat all Black people as precious and worthy of mercy and grace. Until then, there can be no justice.”
Carole Emberton, associate professor of history
“I would say that while the verdict was a relief, particularly for the Floyd family, I’m sure, it was only partial justice. The prosecution’s case hinged upon the ‘bad apple’ narrative of police brutality; that is, one bad cop acted outside the parameters of ‘normal’ policing. But we know that is not the case. According to The Washington Post, nearly 1,000 people have been killed by police in the past year. The problem is obviously much deeper than one bad cop. The racialization of policing and the criminalization of Blackness has a long history in the U.S., and until steps are taken to address these issues, then unfortunately, these killings will continue, despite Chauvin’s conviction.”
Ryan Muldoon, associate professor of philosophy
“The verdict in the Chauvin trial shows that accountability for egregious police behavior is possible, but by no means certain. It is important to remember that the headline of the initial police report for Floyd’s murder was ‘Man dies after Medical Incident During Police Interaction.’ This baldly misrepresented what happened, and it was only because a citizen recorded the murder that we found out. This suggests a need for much deeper reforms. AG Garland [Merrick Garland, U.S. attorney general] announced that he would launch a patterns and practices investigation into the Minneapolis police department. This is a good first step. But we need to, at the very least, create a culture of accountability for police, both for racially discriminatory practices across all kinds of contact with citizens, and in particular in choices that lead police to use force against citizens. Citizens of all races and backgrounds should be confident that police are community partners and public servants, not an occupying force.”
Kari Winter, professor of American studies
“The verdict against Derek Chauvin was just, but it was not justice. Three counts of ‘guilty’ provided a healing balm of relief. We avoided one more bitter blow. But justice is not achieved by a correct verdict in just one trial. Police and hate groups have not paused in their acts of terrorizing and killing people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, citizenship and mental health. We know what the building blocks of justice are. We’ve dreamed the dream for 250 years, but we’re still trapped in nightmares. Let us hope that Chauvin’s conviction has opened cracks in the old rotten system. May the light of justice stream in.”