Activists hope Chauvin convictions are start to real change

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In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, stands after the verdict is read in his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Standing next to him are attorneys Eric Nelson, left and Amy Voss. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

MINNEAPOLIS – “One down, three to go!” went the chant just minutes after Derek Chauvin was convicted in George Floyd’s death — a reference to three more fired officers who are awaiting trial.

While the verdict was celebrated by activists and brought a sense of relief, talk soon turned to ambitions for greater change outside the courtroom.

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Activists, Floyd’s family members and some public officials said Chauvin's convictions on murder and manslaughter charges were just a start, and they will continue to push for systemic change in policing in Minneapolis and beyond.

“We need true justice," Attorney General Keith Ellison, who led the team that prosecuted Chauvin, said after Tuesday's verdict. "That is a social transformation that says that nobody’s beneath the law, and no one is above it.”

But transformation looks different to different people. Some activists support efforts to “defund” police departments, while others call for less dramatic change. Some actually want more police officers, not fewer.

And there are significant headwinds for all the plans, ranging from nervous voters in Minneapolis to Republicans at the Legislature to the difficulty of passing significant reform in Congress.

Floyd’s brother Philonise is among those calling for passage of a federal law, named after Floyd, that would end “qualified immunity” for officers and set national policing standards in an attempt to bolster accountability. The measure stalled last summer in the Republican-led U.S. Senate, just months before Democrats narrowly took control of the chamber.

“You have so many people who have their blood on that bill,” Philonise Floyd said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show. He named Eric Garner and his brother as he talked about the bill’s ban on chokeholds. He also said police should be required to keep their dashboard and body cameras on at all times.

The verdict, he said, "should be the beginning of this nation figuring out that we all can live with each other, we all should be able to work together. … People really believe that we have freedom and it’s freedom for all since justice was served for George.”

In Minnesota, the call for change intensified after last week's killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black motorist and father of one who was shot by a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. Wright's funeral was scheduled for Thursday; on Wednesday, hundreds of people attended a public viewing of his body at a Minneapolis church.

Wright was on the minds of many activists after Chauvin's guilty verdicts.

“Although we’re celebratory, and people have a right to be celebratory and breathe, we know that there’s more work to be done,” said Sam Martinez, an organizer with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, a group formed after the 2015 death of Jamar Clark in a confrontation with Minneapolis police. “Daunte Wright is just another example of the work that still needs to be done even though we did get a guilty verdict for Chauvin.”

The city of Minneapolis has been under increased pressure to overhaul policing since Floyd died after he was pinned under Chauvin’s knee last May. A majority of City Council members called for dismantling the police department in the days after Floyd’s death in favor of a more holistic agency that was largely undefined.

That effort foundered after it essentially ran out of time for last November's ballot. But voters could vote on a similar proposal this November, with three City Council members offering a plan to replace the police department with a Department of Public Safety that would include police officers and other divisions for "a comprehensive approach to public safety beyond law enforcement.”

Grassroots efforts – at least one with big funding -- have similar ideas. As of last week, Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of community groups, had collected 20,000 signatures on a petition that’s similar to the council members’ proposal. According to a campaign finance report, the group received $500,000 from the Open Society Policy Center, which has ties to billionaire George Soros.

Martinez’s group is gathering signatures for a different amendment that would put control of decisions about the police department under an elected Citizen Police Accountability Council. Martinez said the other amendment proposals amount to a simple name change and don’t go far enough.

“That’s not going to stop another George Floyd from happening, that doesn’t help any of the families who lost family to police violence, that doesn’t stop over-policing in Minneapolis,” Martinez said.

Still, there's strong opposition to getting rid of the city’s police department. One group, Operation Safety Now, says on its website that it opposes the “police-less society” envisioned by some council members “and their radical supporters." After a year when the police department has fallen well below its usual complement of officers after many have taken disability leave, the group says more officers are needed.

Operation Safety Now supports change — such as more use of mental health crisis and gang-related violence prevention teams — but says such efforts can succeed only with strong law enforcement. It has endorsed City Council candidates supportive to its cause.

Outside Minneapolis, Martinez’s group is also pushing for state legislation that would strengthen civilian oversight of police departments, end qualified immunity and provide access to body-worn camera footage to families of victims of police violence within 48 hours.

Martinez said lawmakers on both sides have called for changes but that “it’s just really a matter of them saying they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do.”

Minnesota Democratic lawmakers said Chauvin’s conviction should provide a powerful new impetus for police accountability and racial justice legislation. But the balance of power makes it difficult; Republicans control the state Senate. The Legislature passed a police accountability bill last year that fell well below what Democrats wanted, including curbs on traffic stops and an end to qualified immunity.

Hanging over it all is the federal investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis announced Wednesday, just a day after Chauvin's convictions. The probe could end with the Department of Justice imposing changes on the city and its police.


Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd:

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