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University panel dissects Derek Chauvin verdict and its implications

| Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Monday afternoon, a panel organized by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights reflected on the recent verdict in the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody May 25, 2020. The jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all charges, including second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The panelists included second-year law student and Klau Center graduate assistant Silas Altheimer, who moderated the discussion, associate professor of law and Klau Center director Jennifer Mason McAward, history and Africana Studies professor Richard Pierce and sociology doctoral candidate Emmanuel Cannady, who works with the South Bend Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and as a graduate student affiliate of the Klau Center.

The panelists delineated the context, implications and promise within the Chauvin ruling.

Professor Pierce began the discussion by examining the historical origins of policing and his own negative experiences with police officers as a Black man.

“I have endured encounters with police officers,” Pierce said. “I have been placed in handcuffs.”

Pierce also said modern-day policing stems from the Fugitive Slave Act and other measures designed to recapture and police Black slaves. He argued that today’s systems of power expect not only compliance but even subjugation from Black people.

In order to induce more accountability, Pierce proposed a shift in financial policy, suggesting that police officers should pay legal settlements — not the taxpayers who fund the local police department.

Director McAward shared her expertise on the legal proceedings of the case. As she explained, Chauvin is currently sentenced to 12.5 years in prison before the judge’s investigation into other possible areas of misconduct comes to the table. Still, McAward said Chauvin will likely appeal the initial decision on the basis of rejected claims to sequester the jury to avoid public influence.

Even after appeals are complete, McAward said Chauvin could face additional federal civil rights lawsuits, including suits that can be filed by Floyd’s family members.

“As a government officer, Chauvin was bound to respect George Floyd’s constitutional rights,” McAward said in an explanation of the additional charges possible. “And by using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Chauvin might be held criminally or civilly liable, spending time in jail or paying money damages over and above whatever happens in the state court.”

In light of these legal proceedings, McAward emphasized the distinction between individual accountability and systematic change.

“The criminal process is meant to hold Chauvin himself accountable, and that’s a very important thing in the case, as a symbolic matter. It is exceedingly rare for police officers to be charged, much less convicted when they kill somebody, much less a Black person,” McAward said. “But beyond individual accountability, the goal is to make this case not just a symbol, but a real inflection point after which we see strides toward real and systemic justice.”

McAward said a pending criminal case against the three officers who did not intervene to stop Chauvin, as well as the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing “pattern and practice investigation” into the Minneapolis Police Department, will continue to contribute to widespread, systemic change and send the message that neither police brutality nor complicity will be tolerated.

BLM activist Cannady also spoke on the topic of systemic change, saying that George Floyd’s case is not the end of the BLM movement.

“In terms of the trial of George Floyd — his murder and Chauvin’s trial — not a lot has changed within the movement itself because Black people are still getting killed,” Cannady said. “I hope Dr. McAward is right that this is an inflection point that tells other officers that they shouldn’t be complicit.”

Cannady evidenced his claims with the recent deaths of Daunte Wright, who was shot by a police officer who confused her gun for a taser, Adam Toledo, a seventh grader who was shot by the police, and Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot while allegedly wielding a knife.

“In the wake of George Floyd, there was a lot of joy, but there was almost an instantaneous pivot,” Cannady said. “This is just a start. Individual accountability doesn’t address the structural issues that are happening in our communities.”

Cannady also described one solution many BLM protestors are calling for — a restructuring of policing and community safety.

“There’s a strong push for abolition of policing in its form, and that’s not to say that nothing’s going to be there, but it’s [the movement] to reconceptualize what community safety looks like,” he said. “This means defunding the police, but also putting most of that money into other resources that have been extracted from communities.”

Specifically, Cannady emphasized the importance of trained counselors, interventionists, school teachers and medical professionals who often diffuse conflict and ensure community safety.

In addition to the information session, Altheimer and Pierce recommended several books that students can read to better understand the relationship between police and the Black community. The list included “Slavery by another name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” by Douglas Blackmon, “Worse than Slavery“ by David Oshinsky, “From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and “Invisible No More” by Andrea Ritchie.

All the panelists acknowledged that the video footage of George Floyd, captured by a bystander, set his case apart and led to a conviction when many previous cases ended without accountability.

Finally, Pierce, McAward and Cannady also emphasized the importance of education for the BLM movement.

“Any opportunity that folks have to educate themselves is important,” Cannady said. “That education needs to be the right type of education too… either coming from a reputable source, or even just go up and talk to somebody about their experience.”

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