May 25, 2020, is a day that millions of Americans and other global citizens who oppose injustices rooted in racism must remember. It is the day that George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in police custody, was murdered by a White police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., while three other officers with limited roles failed to intervene. The deadly encounter unfolded when officers were dispatched to a local food market, where Floyd, 46, allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill to the store’s cashier. What soon transpired landed Floyd in handcuffs, lying face down in the street with then-police officer Derek Chauvin’s left knee positioned on the Black man’s neck for over nine minutes.
Although Floyd continuously pleaded for his life, uttering, “Please, I can’t breathe,” Chauvin refused to remove his knee, even after Floyd stopped breathing. A video of Floyd’s murder was caught on a cellphone camera, captured by a Black teenager. She loaded the video to Facebook, and it went viral, horrifying millions of people across America and beyond. The vivid sight of Floyd suffering a slow death was heart-wrenching to watch, even though police brutality of Black men, women, and teens wasn’t new.
In the last decade alone, there have been hundreds of deadly encounters between White law enforcement officers and unarmed Black people. Many of their fates had also been captured by cellphone video and went viral, much like Floyd’s. The names of the victims are too many to list, but include Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and the list goes on and on.
However, soon after the world saw the video of Floyd’s murder shown repeatedly via social media platforms and national and world media outlets, it was apparent the pursuit of justice, this time, would take a different pathway. The day after Floyd’s murder, famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced that he would represent the Floyd family and promised “justice” for George Floyd. The same day, the four police officers connected to Floyd’s death were fired. And massive protests, organized principally by Black Lives Matter (BLM), started in Minneapolis but spread quickly to other American cities – large and small.
The huge protests didn’t stop at the United States’ borders, as people in more than 60 countries took to the streets to voice outrage over racism and the deadly police actions that took Floyd’s life.
“From a Canadian perspective, the many protests here in Canada over George Floyd’s death were clearly racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse as we have ever seen,” said Phil Vassell, a Jamaican-born African-Canadian, who has lived in Toronto for 48 years and is the former publisher of “Word,” Toronto’s historic Black, urban, and cultural magazine. “We saw and felt protests in parts of Canada where hardly any Black people live.”
Vassell, who produces the IRIE Music Festival in Greater Toronto told this writer that “The conversation is no longer about individual forms of racism in Canada, but structurally how we as a country, we as a providence, and we in cities, move forward to change and give ourselves greater equity as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities,” said Vassell. “Racism on an individual level will probably never go away, but if we don’t get to the root of systemic racism, then we will not see real change.”
During the thousands of daily global protests, the legal movement to render justice for George Floyd’s murder continued to advance. On the last day of May 2020, it was announced that Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison would lead the prosecution of the case. Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights also announced the filing of civil rights charges in the case.
On June 9, funeral services were held for Floyd in Houston, Texas, where he grew up in the city’s Third Ward. His funeral followed memorial services in Minneapolis and Raeford, North Carolina. For Floyd’s brother, Philonise, there was no time to rest after the Houston funeral. The next day, in Washington, D.C., he spoke to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. His core message to the House Judiciary Committee members was straightforward about his brother’s killing and the necessity to overhaul a racist criminal justice system.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, the protests and rallies for justice for George Floyd gained steam. As the new year rolled in, the multi-level movement for pursuing justice, attacking racism, and eradicating police brutality raged on. And with the world watching, Chauvin’s trial began March 29 in Minneapolis, but not before two major direction-shaping events occurred weeks earlier. First was Congress passing H.R.7120, also referred to as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill is now stalled in the Senate.
The bill addresses many policies and issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability. It includes a mandate for “use-of-force data collection” involving police encounters, prohibits racial and religious profiling, and redirects funding to community-based policing programs, and more. And two weeks before Chauvin’s trial, the Floyd family agreed to settle a $27 million civil rights lawsuit for George Floyd’s death.
Following three weeks of testimony at Chauvin’s trial, on April 20, the ex-officer was found guilty on all three counts: second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
“Everyone involved in this prosecution pursued one goal, which is justice,” Ellison, who was born and raised in Detroit, said in a statement. “That long, hard, painstaking work has culminated today. I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice,’ however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice.”
Chauvin, who will be sentenced in June, faces 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder, and up to 10 years for manslaughter. The judge, however, has discretion based on Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines. The other three former officers connected to the death of Floyd will stand trial together this summer.
While accountability and justice for Floyd were decisively delivered on April 20, following the trial, the Associated Press (AP) reported that at least six police killings happened in the 24 hours after the Chauvin guilty verdict, which included the killing of Andrew Brown, Jr., a 42-year-old Black man from Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
“Simply put, you’re not seeing a reduction when you look at the data on killings by police,” data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policymaking organization created to identify solutions to reduced police violence, told Time magazine in early May. “And the brunt of the violence from police is still directed disproportionately at Black people.”
“Ending police violence will require a radical shift in policing – not a little bit, not reform, not bodycams, not new training,” Jessica Byrd, founder of Washington, D.C.-based ThreePoint Strategies and Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, said in a Time magazine story shortly after Floyd’s death. “There has to be a radical shift in the way we think about protecting our communities and public safety.”
So, will police brutality ever end?
“I think it’s similar to anything else that becomes an attack: you find ways to minimize it, manage it, and contain it, so it becomes the exception and not the rule,” said Rev. Dr. Steve Bland, Jr., senior pastor of the Liberty Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, and president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity. “It’s like this virus out here. You want to develop an antidote that minimized the possibility of an infection, but it doesn’t eliminate it totally. However, strict laws must be put in place that will give citizens faith that the people causing criminal behavior as law enforcement officers can no longer be protected.”
JoAnn Watson, a longtime civil and social rights advocate, who spent ten years on Detroit City Council, agrees.
“No police officer should ever assume the role of judge, juror, and executioner,” said Watson, who is now the senior pastor of West Side Unity Church in Detroit. “But that has been happening to Black men throughout America’s history. To combat that, we must demand that the federal government provide safeguards, reform, and institute fairness to honor the Constitution, and honor the reality that every citizen of the United States deserves equal protection under the law.”
“The anniversary of the George Floyd murder is a stark reminder of the inequality and disparity, which is still a part of life in the United States of America,” Watson said. “On one hand, I’m happy about the Derek Chauvin verdict but angry over so many other unprosecuted killings of Black people by people who have taken sworn vows to protect and serve. When I think of George Floyd’s murder one year ago, I think about Malice Green. He was the 34-year-old unarmed Black man, who was murdered after being assaulted by three White Detroit police officers on November 5, 1992. He was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car and wasn’t breaking any laws.”
Yet, one year after Floyd’s death, there’s hope that his killing, and the killings of so many other unarmed African Americans, will evoke people, organizations, and movements to continue to stand up, speak out, and demand the end to systemic racism across all sectors of society, including law enforcement.