Derek Chauvin’s Sentencing Sparks Relief But Also Resolve to Keep Fighting Injustice
People in George Floyd Square react after the sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on June 25, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune)
The historic punishment handed down Friday to a former police officer for George Floyd’s murder evoked both community relief and a resolve for more action in the long struggle to end racial injustice.
While acknowledging nothing would compensate for Floyd’s death under the knee of Derek Chauvin, activists who have pushed for retribution said they felt some sense of justice by the 22.5 years prison sentence, a rare punishment of an officer.
But not everyone was satisfied by the sentence, which was more than the 10½ to 15 years recommended by state sentencing guidelines but not as much as the 30 years that prosecutors sought. Many of those who took to the streets after the hearing called it just a step in the continued fight for meaningful police reform.
“I think every time now, from this time forward, people will think about this case,” said Rev. Jia Starr Brown, who listened for news of the sentence near the spot where Floyd was killed in south Minneapolis. “People will think about what happened here. People will be reminded not just about what happened with Chauvin but they’ll be reminded of this community and the cries that came out from this place.”
Since last year’s killing of Floyd, the Twin Cities has become the epicenter of renewed discussions not just on policing, but on systemic racial inequities in many of society’s institutions.
“Today represents an opportunity to be a turning point in America,” said Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump, who addressed a small crowd outside the Hennepin County courthouse after the sentence was delivered.
Crump said he got a congratulatory text from Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor who was shot and killed in her Louisville apartment during a police raid. He said Chauvin’s sentence was a step in the right direction but more needed to be done such as passing a federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban the use of chokeholds as well as no-knock warrants and provide other accountability measures. The bill has stalled in Congress.
“Don’t put George Floyd’s name — a strong man — on a weak bill,” said civil rights icon Rev. Al Sharpton. “We know the difference between two pieces of bread and a sandwich.”
While news of Chauvin’s guilty verdicts in April brought hundreds of people to Minneapolis streets and George Floyd Square with fireworks, cookouts and other signs of jubilation, the sentencing drew smaller crowds whose initial reactions were mixed and subdued.
Brandon Brooks traveled to the Twin Cities from Sioux Falls for a Friday night Twins game, but said he felt compelled to visit George Floyd Square for the sentencing. Brooks, a Black Army veteran who grew up with a white police officer for a father figure, said he felt it was important to be there to experience a historic moment.
“The past year, it’s been about awareness,” he said. “I hate the fact someone had to lose their life for all this to come to light. But if you can spin a positive out of it, I’m glad it did [come to light]. You look behind us here, all this happened organically. There’s no more hiding from it. We have been so unfairly discriminated against for so long, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s not just Black people out here now.”
Community organizer and freelance artist Christina Crudup said no matter the skin color, people need to “find each other to be human.”
“This man still gets to take his breath every day,” she said of Chauvin. “His life has changed too. He’s got to face it though. I feel for his family, but he deserves everything he gets.”
Under the awning of the old Speedway gas station across the street from where Floyd was killed, a few dozen people quietly crowded around a cellphone that streamed the hearing.
When Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill made his sentencing announcement, the crowd was ambivalent. Many were disappointed and a few visibly angry that Chauvin didn’t receive the maximum sentence. Then Rev. Starr Brown yelled out: “That’s still worth celebrating!” Soon, the crowd was chanting again: “One down, three to go!” referring to the other former officers also charged in Floyd’s death.
“When people have been living and operating in such a deficit for so long, there sometimes can be this desire [to get] the maximum sentence,” Starr Brown said later. “We want justice to be fully and appropriately served. … None of us as African-Americans have ever experienced justice in our lifetimes.”
Downtown, Marcia Totter of Minneapolis wore a T-shirt with photos of people killed by police. She said she was expecting more prison time for Chauvin, but she was happy he was sentenced at all.
“At least he’s getting some time, all these other police officers didn’t get any.” Totter said. “The struggle continues.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office took the unusual move of requesting for the public to send community impact statements electronically, pointed to the sentence’s significance, calling it “one of the longest a former police officer has ever received for an unlawful use of deadly force.”
But he said there needs to be additional action for true progress to be achieved.
“The outcome of this case is critically important — but by itself, it’s not enough,” he said. “My hope for our country is that this moment gives us pause and allows us to rededicate ourselves to the real societal change that will move us much further along the road of justice.”
Jacob Blake Sr., whose son was left paralyzed after being shot by a Wisconsin police officer last summer, encouraged protesters to remain active.
“We must not hold hatred,” he said. “But we must stay diligent out here in these streets, because no one is going to give us anything. And if we sit down and rest, they’ll take what we have achieved.”
Toshira Garraway, of the group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, called on the public to lift up the other families in Minnesota that have suffered the same loss as Floyd’s family but whose cases never went to court.
“We are very thankful for the little bit of crumbs that they did give us today when holding this officer accountable, but just like George Floyd is the face of hundreds of murders around Minnesota that have been covered up … Derek is the face of hundreds of killer cops that are still out there walking in our communities,” Garraway said.
While the sentencing was indeed unusual for a law enforcement officer, some in the profession urged people to remember the officers who patrol the streets honorably.
St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson, who is Black, wasn’t sure what long-term implications the case will have, if any.
“I don’t know what effect it will have on police going forward, and I don’t know it should have an effect on police going forward,” he said. “The implication [of calls for large-scale police reform] is that every police officer is Derek Chauvin. How dare anyone say that … I know a whole lot of police officers who are nothing like Derek Chauvin,” he said. “They need to be remembered too. Are there things we need to change? Yes. Complete reform? Absolutely not.”
Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said in a statement: “Today’s sentencing sends a strong message that no one is above the law.”
—Staff writers Zoe Jackson, Maya Miller and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.