George Floyd’s murder by a police officer — exactly a year ago Tuesday — sparked a national conversation and proposal for police reform that is still being had today.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Police are still killing Black people disproportionately a year after the death of George Floyd, whose pleas for his mother, his life and some semblance of humanity as he struggled to breathe under a police officer’s knee stirred the national dialogue on police brutality and sparked national legislation intended to reform.
There is no fairytale ending in the last chapter of Floyd’s story. His death left his family bereft. It upended the life of the woman who loved him. It triggered months of national protests. It launched untold and often intense debate on racism, justice in America, and the persistence of prejudice and outright violence toward people of color in a nation built in overwhelming part on the exploitation of Black bodies through slavery.
And when Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in 2020, was standing trial this spring, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot and killed by officer Kim Potter during a traffic stop not far from where Floyd had gasped for air on hard pavement. Potter, despite 26 years of experience and her role supervising training for rookie cops, said she “accidentally” used her gun on Wright when she intended to use her stun gun.
Over three people a day were shot and killed by police while Chauvin stood trial and, according to the Mapping Police Violence database, there have been just six days so far in 2021, despite a raging pandemic, where police did not kill someone. This year, the database reports, is on track to be like the last seven, as police killings continue a steady upward trend despite no rise in violent crimes nationally.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — sponsored by Representative Karen Bass, a California Democrat and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus — was intended to curb excessive force and save lives when it was first introduced last year. It passed the House of Representatives exactly one month after Floyd was killed but it had no audience in the Senate where then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, refused to take it up.
The legislation bans carotid holds and no-knock warrants, while also proposing the creation of a national registry for police misconduct — a feature its proponents say would make it more difficult for officers with a history of bad conduct to jump jurisdictions without a trace.
But most contentiously among lawmakers who opposed the bill then and oppose it now is its provision to end qualified immunity for government officials and police, an accountability factor supporters of the law say is critical to restorative justice.
Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican and the only Black Republican in the Senate, countered the Floyd Act with the Justice Act, short for Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere.
Scott’s legislation didn’t go far enough for Democrats, and it ultimately died in the Senate last year because it failed to restrict qualified immunity. It also did not direct that chokeholds be banned at a federal level.
After President Joe Biden directed Congress to pass legislation by the anniversary of Floyd’s death at his first joint address to the Legislature, the going has been slow. Scott told reporters last week after emerging from talks with Representative Bass and Senator Cory Booker that they were close to a deal though qualified immunity was still a “work in progress.”
With the anniversary coming and going and nothing signed into law yet, President Biden invited members of Floyd’s family to the White House for a private meeting Monday. No press was permitted at the event. White House press secretary Jenn Psaki explained that the closed session would be more conducive to the “real conversation” that the president wished to have with Floyd’s family.
Attending the private ceremony Tuesday were Gianna Floyd, George’s youngest daughter, and Gianna’s mother, Roxie Washington, as well as Floyd’s sister Bridgett and brother Philonese. His brother’s wife, Keeta Floyd, and his brothers Rodney and Terrence Floyd attended as well, bringing along Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, too.
After an hourlong session, the family met reporters gathered outside of the White House. By all accounts, the president — intimately familiar with the loss of family — had been eager to remember George’s life with the family, and even spent a few happy moments playing with Gianna Floyd in the Oval Office.
“It was great, he’s a genuine guy,” Philonese Floyd said of the president, who conducted the sit-down with Vice President Kamala Harris. “They always speak from the heart, and it’s a pleasure just to be able to have the chance to meet with him when he had that opportunity to. I’m just thankful for what is going on, and we just want the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to be passed in the future.”
The family will meet with Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott of South Carolina late Tuesday. They had a chance to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congresswoman Bass, the sponsor of the legislation, earlier in the day.
“If you can make federal laws to protect the bird which is the bald eagle, you can make federal laws to protect people of color,” Philonese said ahead of the meeting.
Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, whom the family’s attorney Ben Crump described as someone who was “like a son” to Floyd, said he felt the president and vice president “genuinely wanted to know how we were doing and what he could do to support us.”
While passing the eponymous legislation is the goal, Williams said the president told his family he wanted to “make sure it is the right bill and not a rush bill.”
“He’s not happy about the deadline not being met, but all in all he just wants it to be right and meaningful and that it holds George’s legacy intact,” Williams said.
Before departing the White House, the family stood together before reporters, raised their closed fists in the air and asked the youngest among them — Gianna — to lead their family in a short chant of “Say his name” for those family members who could not attend the White House meeting.
Just a few feet high, her head barely clearing a group of microphones, Gianna Floyd obliged and her family replied in unison three times: “George Floyd.”
Attorney Ben Crump said he was hopeful that the legislation would soon be passed.
“We have to respect the spilled blood that is on this legislation. It must be meaningful and we can do this together. This is an American issue not a police issue or a civil rights issue. We have to look at this as a national issue that we have avoided for far too long,” Crump said.
Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was ultimately convicted by a jury of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after 10 hours of jury deliberation. With legislation still in the air and police killings unabated, however, Representative Al Green, a longtime civil rights advocate and former Harris County, Texas, justice of the peace, said in an interview ahead of the anniversary that Chauvin’s conviction was welcomed.
But, he reminded, there are still many parts to this puzzle.
“While the defendant in the lawsuit was a police officer, it was the justice system that was on trial… finding Chauvin guilty, the system acquitted itself,” the Texas Democrat said with a caveat. “But the system still has another phase to it. The trial is bifurcated.
“You have the finding of guilt and then you have the punishment,” Green continued. “The punishment phase is going to be exceedingly important because we have seen cases where persons have been found guilty, and the punishment was that befitting a misdemeanor when persons have been found guilty of a much more egregious offense. You must have punishment suitable for the crime that was committed and that would further vindicate the justice system in this case.”
Green described the bill named in Floyd’s honor as a “good, solid piece of legislation,” and underlined that the elimination of no-knock warrants and chokeholds — still used lawfully in many states — would almost certainly save lives.
“This piece looked at in toto, gives us the opportunity to develop better cultures within police departments because some of the cultures are such that police officers, when they act in unison, sometimes behave in ways that we can’t predict,” Green reflected, noting specifically revelations about Ronald Greene.
Greene, a a 49-year-old Black man from Louisiana, died after police pulled him over, violently beat him about his head and body, berated him, and used a stun gun on him while he was already subdued on the ground.
Like Floyd, Greene too begged for help and for his life as police officers snuffed it out. Unlike Floyd, video of Greene’s death took two years to emerge since Louisiana police only released it last week, attributing such delay to ongoing investigations into the officers.
Police first told Greene’s family he died in a car crash as he fled officers. Then police said Greene got into a struggle with them and finally died on his way to a nearby hospital. In releasing the video of Greene’s interaction with police last week, Louisiana Police Superintendent Lamar Davis said the move was made to help the public “move toward healing.”
While officers can be heard describing their pursuit of Greene, his car is not visible in the video. Another segment just minutes long shows officers attempting to yank Greene out of his car as he is heard saying, “OK, OK, OK, officer. Lord Jesus,” and then hit with a stun gun while still inside. Over four minutes and before Greene gets out of the vehicle, he is Tased and beaten. One officer is heard on the audio saying, “And I beat the ever-living fuck out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control, and we finally got him in handcuffs.”
There was no manner of death in Greene’s autopsy report. Lacerations on his arms were evident, however, and the coroner confirmed they were “inconsistent with motor vehicle collision injury” but instead most consistent with “multiple impact sites from a blunt object.”
Representative Green posits that qualified immunity provisions, like those in the Floyd Act, could be a real deterrent.
“We can’t afford to do this again,” the lawmaker said, reflecting on the destruction at hand. “We have to deal with [police officers] at the genesis; when they are trainees in the academy. We also have to help to make sure they have a culture that doesn’t allow them to behave in unison with animalistic behavior so we can finally weed out those that are just not going to be capable of conforming to rules and regulations and the laws that we will pass.”
Bass, as the head sponsor of the Floyd Act and chief negotiator, has Green’s vote of confidence that she will get a deal done on the bill with Republicans.
It may not be as fast as some would want, and it may not be, in the end, exactly what lawmakers initially crafted, but the prospect of turning the tide toward accountability is real, Green said.
“I think that we are moving in a direction that gives us hope. And we’re going to cling to that hope and believe that Dr. Martin Luther King was right when he said, ‘We shall overcome.’ I’m going to cling to that,” he said. “We shall overcome. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But we shall overcome.”