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Examining the police shootings of Black Americans and how leadership plays a role

While the guilty verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin brought celebration to the streets of Minneapolis, people also came together today to mourn Daunte Wright, and demand justice for other recent police shootings involving Black Americans. John Yang speaks to local reporters about the country's reaction to this moment of accountability in a long history of unanswered calls for justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin brought celebration to the streets of Minneapolis, that same community came together today to mourn the death of another Black man killed at the hands of police.

    John Yang reports on how the country is reacting.

  • And a warning:

    Some of the content of this report is graphic.

  • John Yang:

    In Minneapolis, Minnesota, today, the funeral of Black 20-year-old Daunte Wright, shot by a white Brooklyn Center police officer during a traffic stop.

  • Protesters:

    All three counts! All three counts!

  • John Yang:

    The funeral comes just days after a Minneapolis jury said former police officer Derek Chauvin was guilty of murdering George Floyd, a rare conviction of a police officer in the killing of a Black person.

    But just minutes before, in Columbus, Ohio, a white police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant outside her foster home.

  • Protester:

    Say her name!

  • Protesters:

    Ma'Khia Bryant!

  • John Yang:

    The news unleashed a new wave protests, grief and anger over police killings, especially white officers killing Black Americans.

    Hours later, Columbus police released body camera footage of the shooting hours later. It appears to show Bryant holding a knife as she lunges toward another person a moment before she is shot.

  • Man:

    Get down!


  • John Yang:

    Ned Pettus, Columbus' public safety officer, said state officials were investigating.

  • Ned Pettus:

    Under any circumstance, that is a horrendous tragedy. But the video shows that there is more to this. It requires us to pause, take a close look at the sequence of events and, though it's not easy, wait for the facts, as determined by an independent investigation.

  • John Yang:

    A day later, a white police officer shot and killed a 40-year-old Black man in Elizabeth city, North Carolina. Police have yet to release bodycam footage.

  • Woman:

    It's just sad.

  • John Yang:

    The shootings are a reminder of the unending pattern of killings of Black Americans, often at the hands of the police, who, despite the Chauvin conviction, are rarely convicted of a crime.

    In the 2014 killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of a white officer, no charges were ever filed. The incident sparked days of unrest. Two years earlier, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.

    The killing became a national flash point. Zimmerman was acquitted.

    Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, continues to speak out.

  • Sybrina Fulton:

    First of all, I want to say whoever said time heals all wounds did not lose a child, because we are never going to heal. This country has done something to us that will never be repaired.

  • John Yang:

    In Chicago, the recent police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who ran from police with a gun, before holding up his empty hands, shook a community who just years before lived through another police shooting where law enforcement initially lied about what happened.

    White police officer Jason Van Dyke became the city's first patrolman in almost 50 years to be convicted of murder. The verdict came four years after the shooting, and only after police were ordered to release dash-cam footage of Van Dyke shooting Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as he appeared to be walking away from police.

    To see how communities across the country are reacting to the Chauvin verdict, we're joined by public media reporters from communities that have also had to deal with the killing of unarmed Black men.

    Jason Rosenbaum is with St. Louis Public Radio. Brandis Friedman is with WTTW, the PBS station in Chicago, and Wilkine Brutus is a reporter for WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station.

    Welcome to you all. Thank you all for joining us.

    Brandis, in Chicago, of course, even as the trial was going on, Chicago was dealing with the Adam Toledo case there in itself. What's the reaction been there to what happened in Minneapolis?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    I think all of this has kind of reinforced what a lot of activists have already been saying even since last summer, and even long before the George Floyd death last summer.

    Obviously, you're aware that we had the Laquan McDonald case several years ago, a 17-year-old young man killed at the hands of a Chicago police officer, and he was convicted a couple of years ago.

    So, a lot of folks are calling for a lot more accountability out of the Chicago Police Department and the mayor. And, specifically, they want to see civilian oversight over the Chicago Police Department, which has been something they have been fighting for, for quite a while, and that I think will take quite some time before they reach something where both sides are kind of satisfied.

  • John Yang:

    And Jason in St. Louis, of course, the Michael Brown case in Ferguson a flash point in this whole issue.

    What's been the reaction in St. Louis?

  • Jason Rosenbaum:

    It's been a reaction of relief, and also, frankly, a lot of surprise.

    With the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, there was never any sort of trial either on a state or federal level. So, to see a police officer be found guilty of a litany of charges for killing an unarmed Black man, I think a lot of activists here aren't used to that sort of thing.

    St. Louis and the St. Louis region have changed quite a bit since 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, both politically and policy-wise. But I think that they feel like, while this does bring a sense of closure to one incident, there's a whole lot of ways to go when it comes to overhauling police departments and engendering trust between Black people here and police departments around the region.

  • John Yang:

    Staying with you, Jason.

    Of course, in St. Louis — or in Ferguson last year, in the midst of the protests over the George Floyd death, Ferguson elected its first Black player. St. Louis itself elected its first Black mayor. Has this changed people's attitudes? Is there hope now that there's going to be a greater connection between the communities and City Hall?

  • Jason Rosenbaum:

    Certainly, there is hope.

    One of the things that I think people around the country need to realize is, as I have already said, Michael Brown was shot and killed seven years ago, and it took almost seven years to see monumental political change, like Tishaura Jones being elected the first Black woman mayor in St. Louis.

    And it's not only monumental because of that designation, but she ran on a number of platform planks that featured things that activists here have been calling for since Brown's death, which include shifting money from the police department to things like social workers, and closing things like the Workhouse, which is a notorious jail here in the city.

    So, now is kind of the time for people that have been calling for change to put a lot of the calls of action into action. And they're hoping for people like Jones to actually follow through on them.

  • John Yang:

    Wilkine, in Florida, of course, the Trayvon Martin case was sort of the first or one of the first to sort of focus attention on this issue.

    It wasn't police, but it was a community watch captain. What's changed since then in Florida, or has anything changed in Florida?

  • Wilkine Brutus:

    Yes, Trayvon Martin's case was certainly a catalyst to bring attention to the sort of broad movement to address police and law enforcement accountability.

    There are certainly parallels that I can think of regarding the case surrounding Corey Jones, a man who was shot to death. And that was an accountability case where the police officer actually went to prison. And it showed the sort of multiracial solidarity.

    And that multiracial solidarity added pressure to local elected officials to pass legislation or to at least attempt to pass legislation. And we're certainly seeing that in the city of West Palm Beach, where the mayor enacted a task force, a racial and ethnic equality task force, to address some of the disparities surrounding these underserved communities, which includes access to affordable housing, access to affordable health care.

    There's a myriad of socioeconomic issues that extends far beyond police brutality. And that Trayvon Martin case certainly amplified that, and certainly amplified #SayHerName that it isn't just a Black men who are dying. There are also Black female victims involved in all of this.

    And so that's certainly something to consider when we're talking about Trayvon Martin and any other cases involving law enforcement accountability.

  • John Yang:

    And, Brandis, in Chicago, of course, since Laquan McDonald, there's a new mayor, there's a new state prosecutor — state's attorney.

    And yet we now find, with the Adam Toledo case, many of the same issues back, many of the same frustrations back. Has anything really changed? Or what has changed?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    I think it depends on who you ask.

    The mayor who is currently in office, she was the one who headed up the previous Mayor Rahm Emanuel's police accountability task force in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting. She ran as a reformer. And I think she's getting a lot of criticism now for not really presenting the reform that she promised would come.

    She just this week has said that she does stand by her superintendent of police, who took the job just a little over a year ago, what some might say is probably the worst time to take a new job like that. But some things have changed since the shooting of Laquan McDonald.

    Of course, there's the consent decree that the city and police department have entered into with the federal government. And that is, obviously, a very long process. There's a lot of work to be done there. And, as I mentioned, what a lot of activists here would really is a lot more civilian oversight, where they are the ones who decide who the superintendent of police is and where they have control over the budget and things like that.

    So, they have got a long way to go.

  • John Yang:

    Jason, Brandis mentioned the consent decree the Chicago police are operating under.

    The Ferguson police are also operating under a consent decree. Has that led to any changes, either substantively in the department or maybe in public attitudes toward the department?

  • Jason Rosenbaum:

    It absolutely has.

    But many people in the St. Louis region feel that the fact that the federal government only put a consent decree on Ferguson, and not many other surrounding cities that are either largely Black or largely white, with long records of police misconduct against Black people, was a huge missed opportunity.

    And just changing Ferguson is not going to be the cure-all for the systemic racism that's been permeating around a huge region. And Ferguson has changed. As you mentioned, there's a Black mayor. Many of the key people within city government are African American, and African Americans have more representation on the City Council.

    And because the consent decree was in place, they have had to make changes to their police department and city government because they have had no choice. But the fact that the rest of the region hasn't had that same force, I think many people feel, was a huge missed opportunity on behalf of the Obama administration.

    And because we had a more conservative president that didn't really get into consent decrees or pattern and practice arrangements, there was really no opportunity to do anything else in the St. Louis region.

    Interestingly, the Justice Department has resumed that with the Minneapolis Police Department. And Republicans like Roy Blunt of Missouri have praised the Justice Department for doing that. And they're hoping that more things that are happening in Ferguson happen in other police departments around the country.

  • John Yang:

    Wilkine Brutus in South Florida, Brandis Friedman in Chicago, Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis, thank you all very much.

  • Brandis Friedman:

    Thanks, John.

  • Jason Rosenbaum:

    Thank you.

  • Wilkine Brutus:

    Thank you.

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