The conviction Tuesday of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd represents a rarity in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors seldom bring charges against police for any actions they take on duty because of what’s known as qualified immunity. Officers kill an average of about 1,000 people each year, with a disproportionate number of them being Black. In fact, African Americans are slain at a rate twice that of whites, according to a Washington Post database.
Captured by an eyewitness on a cellphone camera, Floyd’s grisly death last May sparked international outrage and reignited Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the historically unjust treatment of Black people at the hands of police.
Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard Kennedy School, director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership, and visiting professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at Harvard Divinity School. A civil rights attorney, Brooks served as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 2014 to 2017. He spoke with the Gazette right after the trial about the significance of the Floyd verdict and what it may mean for the future of meaningful police reforms.
Cornell William Brooks
GAZETTE: How did you feel hearing that a jury found Officer Chauvin guilty on all three counts?
BROOKS: I feel a sense of relief and a sense of resolve. By relief, what I mean, and what I believe many Americans mean, is not relief from violence avoided in the streets, but relief at [seeing] accountability in the courts, relief that a police officer has been held accountable. After Jamar Clark was killed, after Philando Castile was killed, there wasn’t any sense of accountability. Here, the fact that you had a police chief, a trainer of police, cross the wide, blue line [to denounce Chauvin’s actions at trial] suggests that the blue wall of silence is crumbling and cracking.
That speaks to the fact that there’s a tectonic shift in the American public. We had President Joe Biden, author of the  crime bill, end a presidential address with not “God bless you and God bless America,” but “God bless you and God bless the Floyd family.” The fact that Joe Biden, standing beside the former California State Attorney General Kamala Harris, now the vice president, spoke and stood on the side of people who have been brutalized by the police, profiled by the police, who feel, empirically and historically speaking, that they are objects of suspicion rather than subjects [deserving] of protection, is a noteworthy moment.
As we know from last summer, the community meetings and town halls at the Kennedy School, we were witnesses to 26 million Americans taking to the streets in the largest demonstrations in American history. And so, there’s a shift in sentiment, there is the beginning of a shift in policing. Think about this: In 1955, when Emmett Till was killed, it ignited and inspired the Civil Rights Movement without the guilty verdict. When George Floyd was killed, it did further ignite and inspire the Black Lives Matter movement — now, with the guilty verdict. So this is a very, very serious moment.