Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd on Tuesday, April 20, the conclusion to a case that rattled the nation’s conscious and ignited one of the largest worldwide racial justice movements of our generation. While the verdict is a rare indictment of police brutality and a milestone in the fraught racial history of the United States, members of the Vassar community caution that there still remains much more work to be done in the fight for racial equity.
At the center of the case was a gruesome video that captured the near ten minutes that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, restricting his breathing. Pleading for his life, Floyd repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” at least 20 times throughout the video before he eventually died of asphyxiation. During Chauvin’s trial, after just over 10 hours of deliberations, a 12-member jury found Chauvin guilty on all three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Hours after Chauvin was convicted, President Elizabeth Bradley released an emailed statement to the Vassar community affirming the College’s commitment to racial justice and equity. Bradley also listed various opportunities for the Vassar community to come together to support Black students, faculty, staff and administrators.
The gathering spaces mentioned by Bradley were hosted both in-person and virtually in the following days These community gatherings were organized by the Campus Culture Education and Support Team, the Intergroup Dialogue Collective and the Office of Residential Education.
In a written correspondence with The Miscellany News, Director of ALANA Center Kevin Collins described the significance of these opportunities for the campus community to congregate: “I think it’s important to provide spaces for folks to get their thoughts, feelings, and questions out in community with others. I hope folks got what they needed out of the spaces.”
Collins also highlighted the importance of continuing conversations surrounding racial relations in the United States even after the outcome of George Floyd’s case. He wrote, “The work left to be done is unquantifiable. There are still folks who haven’t had any introductory conversations around difference, let alone around race. We still need to get to a point where people are comfortable talking about race and where those conversations are not framed as ‘difficult.’” He continued, “My work [with the ALANA Center] has been and will continue to be to get folks having those types of conversations and starting to learn and move from just talking about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ to creating environments of liberatory, equitable, and just ways of being and treating one another, especially marginalized folks.”
When asked about his own reaction towards the verdict in George Floyd’s case, Collins had mixed emotions. He reflected, “My initial reaction was one of shock. I tried my best not to have any expectations, but I was not expecting a guilty verdict, based on how these cases have gone in the past.” Collins continued, “I was certainly glad that in this instance, justice was served, but I also was still sad because no matter what, George Floyd is still gone. So many others are still gone.”
Numerous Vassar students shared similar sentiments regarding the verdict. In an interview with The Miscellany News, Co-chair of the Political Education Committee Chelsea Quayenortey ’22 stated, “In all these cases my heart always goes out to the family and the friends of the victims … [T]hey really can’t get their daughter, their son, or brother, or mom back.” She continued, “I feel a lot of grief to be honest. At the end of the day…George Floyd is dead no matter what happens to his murderer.”
While Quayenortey praised the work of the activists who demanded justice for George Floyd, she also emphasized that this individual case is not the end-all solution to racial inequity. She proclaimed, “There’s really no reconciliation that can be had through a cop going to prison…policing will continue to be violent as it is.” Quayenortey then cited an incident where a 16-year-old Black girl Ma’Khia Bryant was fatally shot by an officer outside of her home, the same day as Chauvin’s guilty verdict. She said, “It still hurts so much because this is the only form of ‘justice’ we can see but is there really progress being made?”
Associate Professor of Political Science and Cofounder of the African American Policy Forum Luke Harris also had conflicting feelings regarding the verdict. In an emailed interview with The Miscellany News, Harris explained, “I felt a great sense of release. But, I recognized that the verdict only meant that we had escaped what many of us feared would go unpunished: a legalized lynching.”
Historically, it has been very rare for a police officer to be convicted of murder. According to a study led by Criminal Justice Professor at Bowling Green State University Philip Matthew Stinson, only seven officers, including Chauvin, have been convicted of a murder since 2005, which is only five percent of the officers that had been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter related to on-duty shootings in the US.
Citing this chronic difficulty in addressing abusive policing practices, Harris emphasized the prominent systemic issues that George Floyd’s case raises. He stated, “[Chauvin’s] removal is not the removal of one bad apple: it’s the pruning of a single fruit from a much larger rotting tree.”
Harris further reflected: “We cannot ignore the reality that an excruciating nine-minute-long execution captured on video may be the only standard by which the American legal system will provide us with even the breadcrumbs of justice.” He continued, “Groveling for the crumbs is the thing that makes me feel most raw. Seeing and understanding the jubilation [of Chauvin’s guilty verdict] and at the same time feeling — confronting our degradation.”
Like Collins and Quayenortey, Harris expressed how imperative continued efforts for racial justice are. He proclaimed, “If we allow an isolated verdict to restore our faith in an irredeemable system, then every accomplishment from last summer, or the 2020 elections will be for naught.”